News & Politics

Gorillas Just Want to Have Fun

Life in the great ape house can sound like a soap opera. There's drama, tenderness, power, and lust. Actually most soaps aren't this interesting.

It's a modern Washington story, Gus, A New York native, comes to town for a position with the federal government. The handsome newcomer meets a raven-haired beauty named Mandy. Soon they move in together. The living arrangements, however, are a little complicated. Mandy already is sharing space with a platonic friend from her Milwaukee childhood; he joins the new household, too. Then there's the "aunt" from Philadelphia, who shows up at the door one day and never leaves their Connecticut Avenue abode.

Awkward as the accommodations are, Gus and Mandy give birth in May 1991 to a handsome young son. A year later, Gus becomes a father for the second time — but this time, to the shock of neighborhood busybodies, the mother is not Mandy but the aunt.

Mandy, it turns out, is very understanding. She adopts the baby from Auntie and nurses the infant. Auntie — who seemed somewhat surprised by the birth at her stage of life — appears relieved by Mandy's presumption. The extended family settles into a normal domestic routine. Two years later, Mandy gives birth again, this time to a little girl named Kigali. The family now numbers seven.

But as sometimes happens even in the best of families, a breakup is coming. Gus soon will leave Washington. He is being transferred to a new post by the government. In all likelihood, he will be assigned to a new family in a new city. In time, Mandy — and maybe Auntie, too — will settle in with a new mate.

This is not a new DC soap opera. Mandy and Gus are gorillas. But not just any gorillas. They are cornerstones of one of the most remarkable ape clans in North American zoos. Gus has been one of the great gorilla daddies of all time. And 13-year-old Mandy's behavior has been so surprising that she now is known as "Super Mom."

But, alas, this match made in zoodom can't last. Having already fathered three baby gorillas, the silverback Gus, though a still-young 13, is a victim of his own success. In zoological terms, Gus has reached his "mean kinship value."

That means Gus now has too many offspring and other relatives in the North American gorilla population, which numbers 325. His duty is done.

The love song of Mandy and Gus was no accident. Before Mandy — her real name is Mandara — gave birth for the first time in 1991, no gorillas had been born at the National Zoo for nearly 20 years. Historically, great apes and monkeys had been an important part of the institution. The 1906 monkey house, built 15 years after the zoo moved to Connecticut Avenue from the Mall, is the oldest building on the grounds.

The first gorilla at the zoo, N'Gi, arrived in 1928. Like almost all the zoo's gorillas back then, he was captured as a baby in western Africa. N'Gi was followed by the giant mountain gorilla, Okero, nicknamed Snowball, who ballooned to 660 pounds before his death in 1942.

Another big gorilla, Nikumba, lived at the zoo from 1955 until 1990. Until he died at the age of 37, Nikumba was one of the oldest living gorillas in captivity. Captive gorillas have lived to age 53.

Nikumba and the female Moka produced three offspring — Leonard, Inaki, and Tomoka. When Tomoka was born in 1961, he was dressed in diapers, raised in the home of the primate keeper, and taken on weekend jaunts to the grocery store. He become one of the National Zoo's best-known and best-loved animals. His sister, Inaki, is a resident of Busch Gardens in Tampa.

After Moka's death in 1968, Nikumba and Tomoka, along with their mates, Femelle and M'Wasi, would eventually comprise the zoo's entire gorilla population. Tomoka never fathered any offspring.
In 1972, Nikumba saw his last baby born when Femelle gave birth to M'Geni Mopaya, tagged Mopie by his keepers. But Mopie wasn't around long. It was decided that he should be with other youngsters, so Mopie was sent to the Bronx Zoo.

Mopie's 1972 birth was the last good thing that happened in the gorilla house for a long time. After that, it was merely home to four old animals poorly housed in cramped cages, with little to do or look at.
Lisa Stevens, now curator of the Ape House, remembers when she joined the zoo as a keeper in 1978. "I didn't like looking at the apes," she says. "It bothered me that they weren't being better housed."

Zoo administrators agreed that the apes' cramped, concrete enclosures were not good. They began building a $ 3-million, air-conditioned, solar-paneled Great Ape House. Thick laminated glass replaced the steel bars. In 1981, the new house opened.

After more than 20 years in a cage, Nikumba now had the run of a quarter-acre yard. The gorillas were underwhelmed; Nikumba made it clear that he would just as soon remain inside.

The new space enabled the zoo to bring in a new pair of gorillas, Hercules and Sylvia, from the Baltimore Zoo. Eager to encourage a new gorilla birth, which would both delight zoogoers and boost breeding prospects for the endangered western lowland gorilla, curators tried mixing and matching the females with the different silverbacked males. Nothing worked.

Things eventually got so boring in the gorilla house that television sets were installed to relieve the tedium. Instead of copulating, the gorillas spent their afternoons watching All My Children.
BY 1984, zoo officials had given up on the gorilla clan. Everyone but Nikumba and Tomoka would go. The housecleaning did not take long to begin.

Femelle, the mother of Mopie, had lost interest in Nikumba and seemed unlikely to breed again; she was sent to Milwaukee. M'Wasi, who'd never had any offspring, went to Topeka. Hercules was shipped to a zoo in Pittsburgh, Sylvia to Columbus.

The movement of gorillas was the result of a 1982 "Species Survival Plan" adopted by America's zoos, which acknowledged that past management of captive gorilla populations had failed.

All the gorillas in North America today are western lowland gorillas, descendants of animals captured in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, or Cameroon. There are still about 40,000 in Africa, but their habitat is disappearing as farmers and loggers move farther into the countryside.

Gorillas are the largest of the apes, which include orangutans, chimpanzees, and gibbons, and are differentiated from monkeys by their size, their upright posture, and their lack of a tail.

New studies of gorilla behavior in the wild had led zoo officials to the conclusion that keeping gorillas together all their lives, usually with one mate, had been responsible for their low birthrate in zoos. In the wild, gorilla males tended to transfer from one group to another, males frequently formed new bands, and females would leave with new males. The gorilla population in the wild was dynamic and changeable, much different from the monogamous pattern favored by most zoo curators.

From 1982 until 1986, 147 gorillas in North America would be moved around, all in an attempt to spur reproduction and to create family units that would replicate those in the wild.

In exchange for Femelle, the Milwaukee Zoo sent Washington a pair of toddlers, the female Mandara and a male she had been raised with, Kuja. Neither had displayed any attraction to the other. Kuja amused himself by banging trays on the floor; the only sexual interest Mandara seemed to show was toward her human keepers.

When the pair arrived here in 1985, Mandara was three, and Kuja was two.

Both animals moved into a family headed by Tomoka, who proved to be a kind and gentle godfather in a world where infanticide is not unheard of.

Nikumba still lacked a companion. So, in April 1987, an older female who seemed unhappy at the Milwaukee Zoo was moved to Washington. Captured in the wild in 1955, her name was Mesou.

The family received its fifth addition a few months later when six-year-old Gus moved to Washington from Boston's Stoneham Zoo. A native of the Bronx, Gus refused to accept Tomoka's kindly leadership and began challenging the older animal.

"It didn't happen immediately," curator Lisa Stevens recalls, "but as Gus grew older, from 1987 to 1990, he became the dominant silverback." Although all males technically become silverbacks as they age, many people use the term to describe the dominant male in a group. Gus, says Stevens, grew aggressive. "He would chase Tomoka. He would interfere with Tomoka's interactions with other animals. And if there was food, he would try to get as much as he could."

As Gus's actions pushed Tomoka out of the leadership, the older gorilla's health worsened. Nor did Gus's dominance bode well for Kuja, who managed a peaceful co-existence by moving to the periphery of the group, where he was fed after the others and lived with the family, but sadly apart.

Eventually Gus, Mandara, and Kuja would be joined by an older female, Haloko, the "aunt," who came from the philadelphia Zoo. Nikumba died in 1990 and Tomoka two years later. The zoo reclaimed Mopic from the San Antonio Zoo and placed him in a new living arrangement with Mesou. Their social engineering complete, zoo officials sat back and waited.

Gus was as precocious sexually as he had been socially. Mandara proved to be as intelligent as she was seductive. Zookeepers, including 14-year-veteran Douglas Donald, potty-trained Mandara by giving her praise and food rewards.

The potty-training allowed Stevens to keep track of Mandy's hormones. Stevens held her breath early in 1991, when all signs indicated pregnancy. After so many failed births at the zoo — including public failures at the panda house — zookeepers didn't want to become too optimistic.

On May 10, 1991, Kejana, the first son of Gus and Mandara, was born without human aid. Mandara was to be given 72 hours to show her maternal ability before keepers would step in to bottle-feed and hand raise the infant. That proved unnecessary. Mandara was a loving mother who brought the baby easily to her breast. Gus was a good father, assuming a protective stance between Mandara and the other animals.

Haloko, who had not given birth in more than a decade, was considered non-reproductive. She had delivered three babies at the Bronx Zoo but never had shown any interest in caring for them. One was stillborn; two were hand-raised. Now, at the age of 25 — not young for a gorilla — her value to the family was thought to be as an older, wiser female influence on Mandara. But late on the afternoon of April 11, 1992, a trio of gorilla watchers — neighborhood residents who regularly came in to visit — saw Haloko's water break. Just as the birth was beginning, a zoo policeman entered and announced that the building was closing. The women tried to explain what was happening and begged to be allowed to stay. The policeman insisted on shutting the building. So two of the women huddled at the glass door and for hours angled their gaze at Haloko as she went into labor.

When Lisa Stevens arrived at the Ape House around 8 PM, she was struck by an unexpected sight. Mandara was nursing her baby, Kejana, as well as the new baby, who would be named Baraka.

"We don't know whether Mandara took the baby or Haloko gave her the baby," says Stevens. "All I know is that Mandara was nursing the baby, and Haloko was stretched out on the floor exhausted. I had come in to make sure everything was okay, and I found a gorilla group as quiet and content as they would be on any evening. Mandara always makes my job easy."

As the weeks passed, the slight 150-pound Mandara continued to nurse the new baby. Haloko seemed comfortable with the arrangement. But the surprises were not over. Stevens was concerned about how little Mandara was going to nurture two infants? The problem solved itself. Kejana began spending time with "Aunt Haloko," even nursing at her breast on occasion, while Mandara took care of baby Baraka.

Mandara gave birth for the second time on May 30, 1994. This time the offspring was a female, Kigali, who now can be seen most often riding on her mother's back. Neither Haloko nor Mandara is expected to give birth this spring.

Even so, the gorilla house teems with activity. Baraka and Kejana are happy playmates. Little Kigali occasionally climbs down from her mother's back, grabs a rope, and swings around the cage. Baraka is already a chest beater, and his interplay with his half-brother Kejana leaves many gorilla watchers wondering which will dominate.
"Baraka will be the silverback," says a Connecticut Avenue resident who visits every morning. "Kejana still wants to be with his mother." Experts scoff at such predictions. The dominant silverback usually is the older, bigger animal, says Stevens. It is too early to tell.

When Gus leaves the troop, probably this year — where he will go has not been decided — a new male will have to become dominant. Kuja — the silverback who has lived on the periphery of the group since Gus's arrival — will get the first chance.

The most important thing about Kuja is that he will not hurt the babies. The question is whether he will ever breed with Mandara. The two have been together since infancy; they simply may have a brother-sister relationship, though they are not genetically linked. There also is the possibility that Kuja has been dominated so long by Gus that he can't become a leader.

If Kuja fails to assert himself, Lisa Stevens has a fallback plan. Waiting in the wings is Mopic, now a striking silverback of more than 490 pounds. He bounds around his cage like a lineman, sometimes pounding on the glass that separates him and Mesou from the larger group, sometimes sitting with his back to visitors as schoolchildren ooh and aah over his size and ferocious looks. Gorillas do not get much larger than Mopie.

"When I'm speaking, people will ask me about what to do with a 900-pound gorilla," says Stevens. "I tell them there are no 900-pound gorillas."

Mopie has never been allowed to mingle with the main family and probably won't be as long as little Kigali is vulnerable. But the glass between his cage and the main family area has allowed for visual interaction. "We've already seen Mopie and Mandara staring at each other," Stevens says.

Mopie is 23; Kuja will turn 12 in June. This creates a dilemma for Stevens. It makes sense to give Mopie a chance to breed with Mandara first. Kuja, after all, has more time.

"Essentially, Mopie is our priority," says Stevens, "because he is older. But we want the youngsters to be older before we introduce them to Mopie, so Kuja will get an opportunity first."

Putting both animals in with Haloko and Mandara is not possible, says Stevens. "You never put two silverbacks together unless they have grown up together the way Gus and Kuja had."

Gus's future is uncertain. Of the 325 gorillas living in American zoos, 157 are males and 168 are females. If gorillas were monogamous, this would be nearly perfect. But in gorilla social structures, one male usually heads a family of several females. If Gus is lucky, he will replace a non-productive silverback at some other zoo. More likely, Gus will be placed with a bachelor troop of gorillas.

With or without Gus, the Great Ape House once again has become a lively place. What happens next is the kind of story that could make a great soap opera.