Archive for the African Primates Category

Kuja, Part IV

Posted in African Primates, Bronx Zoo, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo, Mountain gorilla, Rwanda on December 5, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Since that “endless summer” taste of being close to the largest and most powerful of the great apes, I have been fortunate to be able to observe mountain gorillas (Kuja was a western lowland) in the wild. I’ve sat and observed many of the gorilla families that live in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. I’ve seen how precarious the continued existence of gorillas in the wild has become. Situated on the upper slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, the ever-shrinking world of the mountain gorilla is now completely surrounded by cultivation. The gorillas there are castaways on an island of habitat, adrift in a sea of humanity. Less than 750 mountain gorillas remain alive today, in two isolated and increasingly vulnerable remnants of forest. Each gorilla lost, every acre of forest destroyed, threatens to tip the balance against the continued survival of the mountain gorilla.

Virunga volcanoes, Rwanda– an island of gorilla habitat in a sea of cultivation

In central and west Africa, lowland gorilla populations–while still numbering in the thousands–are increasingly under threat as bushmeat hunting, logging, mining, and human-borne diseases like Ebola decimate their populations and destroy their forest home wherever gorillas are found.

Mother gets a kiss at Bronx Zoo’s amazing Congo Gorilla Forest, home to two families of western lowland gorillas.

Gorillas will have an important place in my heart as long as I live. I’ve sat within a few yards of Guhonda, the largest silverback in the Virungas, an enormous being with the strength of 10 football linebackers.

He could have crushed me like an insect and never broken a sweat, but I never felt afraid in his presence. Gorillas are that gentle. And yet, Guhonda would without hesitation use every ounce of his great strength–and even sacrifice his own life if necessary—to defend his family, should they be attacked. Gorillas are that devoted to one another. But leave them in peace to live out their lives– and they in turn will leave you in peace. Unlike people, they have no need to misuse their strength for selfish purposes.

Ryango, the Sabinyo group’s second in command after Guhonda, deftly peels and munches on a stalk of bamboo

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Gorilla Habitat, Gladys Porter Zoo

Posted in African Primates, Gladys Porter Zoo on December 5, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Gladys Porter Zoo’s gorilla family enjoying their 2pm snacks.

The gorilla family at the Gladys Porter Zoo is fed at constant intervals throughout the day. GPZ–located in Brownsville, Texas right on the Texas/Mexico border– is home to three generations of gorillas. Moja, the silverback, has sired ten offspring. Grandmother Katanga and grandfather Lamydoc are now kept in an adjoining exhibit.

Kuja, Part III

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 30, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Kuja’s muscular strength was as out-sized as his voice. One afternoon the actress June Lockhart–star of many classic MGM films and the tv series Lassie and Lost In Space– paid a visit to the zoo and was welcomed into the nursery for a special visit.

An animal lover and avid conservationist, she was thrilled to be holding a baby gorilla in her arms for the very first time. As she doted on him, Kuja became fascinated by her immaculately coiffed fifties-style hairdo–and grabbed a handful, holding on for dear life and almost bending his somewhat elderly visitor double before his fingers were pried loose. Ever gracious, Ms. Lockhart quickly regained her composure–and her “do”–and didn’t hold it against the now-shrieking Kuja as I took him back and swiftly tried to calm him.

I learned a lot that summer. I became fully aware as never before that great apes share so much with humans– they think, laugh, cry, and need love–just like us. I discovered that the boundary between the animal and human worlds was far less distinct that I had ever imagined. Gorillas are neither the savage beasts nor the comic human parodies depicted in movies and in the media–they are creatures of deep emotion and great dignity. They deserve our respect– and our concern. In central Africa, gorillas are routinely killed and eaten as bushmeat. I find that fact hard to fathom.

Kuja, Part II

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 25, 2010 by Charles Alexander

The job was a dream. Often I was at the zoo from midnight til 8am, 7 nights a week. Every few hours, formula was prepared; baby was fed, burped, and weighed; records were scrupulously kept; diapers were changed and baths given as needed. We bonded and initially he spent long hours asleep in my arms or in his crib. As he grew, he became active and wanted to play with his toys and explore. He enjoyed looking at picture books and watching TV. He started eating spinach, carrots, and other flavors spoonfed to him out of a babyfood jar. I can still feel his fingers touching my face as he stared up at me, mapping every detail.

Those nights at the zoo were memorable. So much goes on when the last visitors leave and the zoo gates are locked behind them. Sometimes when Kuja was sleeping I would step outside and talk to the animals in neighboring exhibits. At dusk, shy creatures showed themselves and became active. Animals that had been sleeping in the heat of the day began to stir. As the sun went down, the zoo took on a completely different aspect in the dark: the grounds echoing with animal sounds, the exhibits alive with moving shadows. Sometimes I stayed on till the end of the following day if someone had a day off or couldn’t come in to relieve me. I lived at the zoo and that was fine by me.

Almost from day one, Kuja was strong enough to do a complete chin-up. If he didn’t get his way or get something he wanted fast enough, his lips would purse, fists would clench, until he vented his frustration with a powerful, high-pitched shriek of rage completely out of proportion to his size ( a sound meant to bring every member of a wild gorilla group rushing to the aid of an infant in danger).

Part III

Kuja, Part I

Posted in African Primates, Charles Alexander, Kuja, Lowland Gorilla, Memphis Zoo on November 20, 2010 by Charles Alexander

Gorillas have played an important role in shaping the direction of my life since I was a teenager.

My first real paying job was at the Memphis Zoo when I was almost 19. I had been volunteering (in the Zoo Action Patrol!) in various capacities from the age of 12: picking up trash, chopping animal food, telling people to please not toss coins in the crocodile pool, etc. I did everything in my power to show the zoo administration during those teen years that I meant business and was totally committed to working with wildlife. I spent entire summers at the zoo ( I am so thankful to my parents for shuttling me back and forth, every day when I wasn’t in school). The Curator of Mammals finally gave me a big break close to my 19th birthday by offering me a job in the zoo nursery –handraising an infant lowland gorilla. The infant’s mother Beta was quite old and was so arthritic that she couldn’t hold the baby for nursing. The infant had been removed and was now safe in the nursery in the zoo’s primate building. Would I be interested in the job?

At first, the curator’s offer seemed barely believable. The zoo was going to pay me to do what? As I was ushered into the zoo nursery for the first time to meet my day-old charge, I could barely think as reality began to sink in. When they handed me the infant for the first time–wrapped in a blue felt blanket, his bristly black hair sticking straight up on top of his head– it was the equivalent of an actor being handed an Academy Award. The responsibility was staggering.

His name was Kuja. Suddenly, I was a teenage surrogate parent. My life would never be the same–and the path to my future was revealed. I actually read Gorillas In The Mist for the first time with a baby gorilla sitting on my lap, looking at the pictures with me. Here we are reading a gorilla picture book for kids.

Part II