Gorilla Questions & Answers

Claire RichardThe Milwaukee County Zoo’s primary gorilla keeper, Claire Richard, is featured in a story on the Zoo’s gorillas in the October 2009 Alive (the Zoological Society’s member magazine). Here Claire Richard answers common questions about the Zoo’s six gorillas. The males are Cassius, Maji Maji and Hodari. The females are Femelle, Ngajii and Linda.

How do gorillas eat?

  • Each individual gets his or her own space for breakfast and dinner. Our gorillas don’t share their food. This makes sure everyone gets enough food. It also allows us to monitor their food intake. They’re very stoic. Sometimes the only way you can tell that they’re ill is if they go off food.
  • They get snacks during the day. We have food scattered in their yard and in the indoor exhibit. You might think that males, being bigger, would get more food if put together with females. But with Cassius and Femelle, that’s not the case. When Femelle and Cassius are upstairs on exhibit, Cassius is not much of a forager. So Femelle gets most of the food.” As for the females paired together: “Linda isn’t much of an eater to begin with. So Ngajji gets most of it.

What are their favorite food treats?

We use fruit as a reward most of the time. Each gorilla has favorites, though:

  • Linda: She likes fruit and sweet foods.
  • Ngajji: She likes sweet potatoes, but they must be cooked and softened. She’ll eat anything, though.
  • Femelle: She eats anything. So any food is a treat.
  • Cassius: He prefers our high-fiber cereal pellets. He also likes juice and yogurt (and these are the foods they put his medication into, when he needs medication). He’s very finicky, though. He will NOT eat pureed or “mushed-up” food.
  • Maji Maji & Hodari: These teen males both like onions, fruit, tomatoes and leafy greens.

Claire with Linda
Claire with Linda

Could you talk about their individual personalities?

  • Femelle
    Femelle
    Femelle’s always been very set in her ways and wanting everyone else around her to do things her way. In the last few years, I’ve started to see her get more relaxed and playful, kicking around a ball of woodwool (shaved wood used for bedding) with her feet.
  • Ngajji has always been nervous about everything, but she’s a good follower.
  • Linda’s the little princess. She always has to have something to sit on. She can’t sit on the bare floor—kind of like the story “The Princess and the Pea.” Anytime there’s food, she thinks it’s hers.
  • Maji Maji has always been all male. He has a furrowed brow. So he always looks like he’s thinking about something. Even as a little guy, he always had a strut. He’s very dignified.
  • Hodari, because of being hand-raised elsewhere, has a tendency to be more interested in people. He will be at the windows banging on the glass or throwing things around, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. He’s always very playful.
  • Cassius has a tendency to act really dignified when he knows keepers are watching. When he thinks no one’s around, he’ll swing on the plastic tubing with his legs in the air. The tubing is hung horizontally. He will hang on it with his hands and swing underneath and pull the tubing so he bounces.

What kinds of health problems do gorillas have?

  • Cassius
    Cassius
    Cardiac problems are a big concern, mostly in males. Nationwide the majority of male gorilla deaths in the last five years have been heart-related.
  • The female gorillas at our Zoo have mostly geriatric problems: stiffness, arthritis, slowing down. They get glucosamine supplements. I think it helps. Ngajji also gets Celebrex daily. We know if she misses a dose, she will be in pain the next day.
  • How do you get gorillas to take pills? We use capsules that we can open and then put the powder into foods such as yogurt, sweet potatoes and fruit.

Do females go into menopause?

Yes. Females actually do go through a menopause, but we don’t know their standard age for menopause. Our females were part of a nationwide reproductive hormone study based out of the Brookfield Zoo (in Illinois). Fecal samples showed that all three of the girls – Femelle, Linda and Ngajji--did not have enough hormones to sustain a pregnancy (this was determined in 2007-’08 results).

Maji
Maji

How old can gorillas live?

  • The longest lived gorilla in captivity was named Jenny, and she lived to be 55 years old.
  • Femelle is the Milwaukee County Zoo’s oldest gorilla, estimated to be age 47 (as of October 2009). There are 25 gorillas older than Femelle in North American zoos (as of October 2009).

How many gorillas have lived at the Milwaukee County Zoo over the years?

The Zoo has been home to 29 gorillas according to our Zoo registrar: 17 males, 11 females and one baby of unknown gender. I have cared for eight of them since I started in 1995 as the primary gorilla keeper. They’ve become part of my family. And, like all families, we have good days and bad days. Most of the time they’re a joy to be around.

Do the gorillas go outdoors?

Linda
Linda

Yes. They have a large indoor exhibit, an outdoor yard and an area downstairs in the apes building. In good weather, we shift them around among the three areas. The gorillas stay in pairs. Usually only two are in an area at the same time.

What do gorillas like to play with?

  • You’ll see vinyl globes in their exhibit, which they enjoy. They also like tree branches, which is what they often chew in the wild. All of these “toys” are what we call “enrichment.” They make the animals’ lives more interesting.
  • One tip we got from Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., was to use industrial-strength rubber tubing for enrichment. It’s been the best enrichment for the gorillas. It’s about 1 ¼ inches in diameter, ½ inch thick and we can get it in 15-foot lengths. It’s stretchy like a bungee cord. So we can easily knot it, and the gorillas can bounce on it. We’ve had it since Sept. 2008, and there’s not a tooth mark on it. We have a few sections that are 2 feet long, and Linda chews on them all the time. Cassius just plays on it. If you weave it through the mesh in the holding area, it holds. We also loop it through the metal rings outdoors. Hodari carried around a piece of the tubing for the longest time. It was like a security blanket to him. He still does that at times. A Zoo-wide enrichment committee keeps a list of what’s needed for the animals, and we have a standing request for more tubing.
  • We’ve had a couple of Eagle Scouts come in and do projects for the gorillas to play on. The first was a tower platform of wooden two-by-fours with a hammock hanging underneath; it was completed Easter Week 2008. If you look at their yard from the outdoor deck, it’s in the near left front corner of the yard. The second project will be a series of platforms in the middle of their yard where there is now a rotted log (expected to be completed in 2009).

Do gorillas have good memories?

Ngajji
Ngajji

Let me tell you a story. Jan and Hanneke Louwman were the owners of Dierenpark Wassenaar, a private zoo near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The Louwmans raised a number of bonobos and gorillas that currently reside here at our Zoo. Linda & Ngajji, two of our female gorillas, were included in this group. Jan and Hanneke were very caring, nurturing individuals, and we have seen photos of them holding Linda in their arms like a baby when she was 2 years old.

We acquired the animals from the Louwmans in 1986, when the girls were in their 20s. Many years later, Jan Louwman made a visit to the States and of, course, stopped by to see how the apes were doing and if, by some chance, they would remember him.

Now, on the rare occasion that the gorillas have visitors in their downstairs area, Linda would usually come to the front and beg for treats, and if she didn't get the attention, would collect a mouthful of water and spit. Ngajji, who has a tendency to be a bit more aloof and anxious around strangers, would go as far back as she could, away from the visitors.

When Jan Louwman entered the holding area, Linda showed her usual curiosity. But as she listened to the voices, her head tilted so she could hear better. The wave of recognition came across her, and she immediately started to purr and pat her upper arms. She may as well have melted into the floor. Ngajji watched Linda's reaction and took notice. She came to the mesh to take a better look. Ngajji, who never paid any attention to visitors, upon seeing who had come in, started to rock her body from side to side and purr like none of us had ever heard her do. They stared at Jan with a glow we had never seen, nor have we seen since. It was obvious to us that the two gorillas remembered Jan and were overwhelmed with excitement over seeing him again. Jan was just as thrilled.

Hodari
Hodari

Tell us about Samson the gorilla, who died in 1981 but lives on in people’s memories.

There are a lot of myths about Samson. People will come up and tell me about the time Samson broke the glass in his exhibit and got out. Well, that never happened. He cracked the glass in his exhibit window four times, but he never got out.

What got you interested in caring for animals?

I guess I always liked animals but never expected to make a career of them. I started at the Zoo in June 1987 on the grounds department as a part-time seasonal worker. In 1991 I was hired permanently as a farm attendant, but I often substituted as a temporary zookeeper. Eventually I became a permanent zookeeper, and in 1995 I became the primary gorilla keeper. I’ve taken care of eight gorillas. Besides the current six, there were also Joe (who died in 1999 of something like Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Mgbali (Femelle’s female offspring who died before she turned age 6). At home my husband, Jim (a retired primates zookeeper), and I have two large dogs, a French mastiff that weighs 130 pounds and an Olde English bulldogge that weighs 70 pounds. I would have to go with large pets. I guess I just like big animals.

Interview and text by Paula Brookmire

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