Going Ape, Part I

Posted at 12:27 pm June 11, 2010 by Karyl Carmignani

Karyl tossed food to Memba and his troop, out on exhibit that day.

Few things in life get me leaping out of bed at 4:48 a.m. like the prospect of “shadowing” primate keepers at the San Diego Zoo. We have a terrific Visit-a-Job program where a dozen employees are randomly selected each month to visit an area of their choice within the Zoological Society of San Diego for a day. It’s a great learning experience and also gives employees a clearer understanding of the “big picture.” I chose to visit the great apes, as Frank, the one-and-a-half-year-old baby gorilla, is my primate soul mate, and I’d give anything to feed him breakfast (and lunch and dinner) and gaze into his chocolate brown eyes. I’d give him a kidney if he needed it, but I hope it won’t come to that.

In preparation for my Visit-a-Job, I got a TB test (mandatory to be around primates), avoided people with colds and sniffles like a hornet’s nest (primates are susceptible to many human diseases, and I didn’t want to be an accidental vector), worked like a maniac to get my assignments caught up in the office, and baked cookies for the keepers to help keep them motivated (positive reinforcement works with all apes!). Striding through the Zoo at 5:50 a.m. to meet the keepers, I was astonished by all the people already hard at work. Within minutes, I’d be joining them.

Our first stop was orangutans. We walked past clean, gleaming counters, down the steps, and into the orangutan bedrooms. Leaving the lights off, we walked down the dim hallway checking on each animal without waking them. Then the keeper expertly prepared the juice bottles for individuals who need medication (birth control, arthritis, etc.). Back upstairs I got to help plant some shrubs inside the exhibit: $500 had been donated by a school class, the plants purchased at a local nursery, and they had just been released from horticulture quarantine (a protocol to ensure no chemicals or pests are inadvertently brought into the exhibit). The horticulturist explained the challenges of exhibit landscaping, including making sure the plants, buds, and seeds are not toxic to the animals, the varieties of grasses necessary to keep an exhibit area green all year, and how to protect the plants from the ever-curious primates. Our plants were going in behind “hot wire,” which is a gentle deterrent at best.

Slathered in sweat by 7:30, it was then time to head over to gorillas and “help” get them ready for the day. I all but tap danced in the foot bath in the doorway, as the heady, sweet smell of gorillas met my nose. They were up and about, and not too rowdy. I had met the troop several months before while writing an article about Frank and his family for the Zoo’s member magazine, ZOONOOZ (September 2009), and believe me, it was high praise when Avila, an adult female, came over and carefully stared me down, perhaps trying to place where she knew me from. Paul Donn, the imposing silverback, sat with his (huge) arms crossed while little Frank checked in with everyone, waiting for breakfast.

The keeper opened a partition about a foot high, and Frank ambled into a holding area in which he is given his special breakfast. When Frank was born, his mother was not able to hold him properly to nurse, so keepers intervened to ensure he was getting enough to eat while leaving him with his troop to learn the rules of gorilla-hood (see Frank the Gorilla: First Year). He’s had the best of both worlds! He will be weaned from his bowl of warm morning porridge soon, but thankfully the spoon-feeding task is still necessary…and the keeper let me do it!

Frank is a good eater, and he peered unblinking at me scooping his gruel into his pink mouth. I could see his tiny baby teeth in the front, white as fresh snow. He also gets fresh fruit and seemed to really enjoy the slices of green bell peppers. He weighs a sturdy 31 pounds (14 kilograms) now. I was ecstatic having the honor of being this close to this amazing animal. I’m sure Frank could feel the adoration exuding from me; clearly no malfeasance could come from this love struck “naked ape,” so he continued to stare at me throughout his breakfast. And I stared right back, tickled pink.

Zoo keepers are busy bees, especially in the crunch time before the Zoo opens at 9 a.m. Scooping, sweeping, and hosing exhibits and bedroom areas, slicing, dicing, and preparing diets (and meds), checking on animals, inspecting exhibits for animal and public safety, the list goes on and on, and are all chores that need to be done seven days a week, every day of the year. The keepers’ deep commitment to the well-being of the animals in their care (and their wild counterparts) is remarkable, as is the patience for husbandry training practices they manage to include in an already jam-packed work day. I was grateful the keepers also made time for me!

Stay tuned for Part II of my exciting Visit-a-Job day, where we meet up with the bonobos and drop back in on Frank.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Chicken Noodle Soup (Part 2).

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15 Responses to “Going Ape, Part I”

  1. Tom says:

    Lucky you. What a great write-up. Keep up the good work!

  2. Betsy Eaton says:

    I am so envious. I can’t wait for part 2.

  3. Lee in Vancouver says:

    Karyl, I’m with you every step of the way. I remember visiting the WAP just after Alberta was born and fell in love with her and those big eyes. Looking at the primates I really believe we are looking into their souls. They show emotions just like their cousins, us, do. I can’t wait to read Part 2.

  4. Lisa says:

    I’m soooooooooo jealous!

  5. Margaret in VA says:

    Congratulations, Karyl, sounds like the day dream of a lifetime. Glad you had so much time with Frank and all his ape friends.

  6. Claudia says:

    Yes, what are they thinking when they raise their eyebrows or squint, or give “kisses” thru the glass!? THANK you for another ape article. I am getting more interested in them than I was little Yun Z the Panda. I wish someday to toss someone an apple, and have them catch it!

  7. Dianna from Ohio says:

    Wow.. what a wonderful program to have to be able to experience the different areas within your zoo… And you are not a “zoo keeper” right? I did not know that even plants had to be quarantined before being placed in an exhibit. And a TB test? Wow… what other human diseases can primates catch from humans?

    You are so lucky!! Can’t wait for part 2….

  8. Dianna from Ohio says:

    Karyl: You mentioned bonobos and having just recently visited our zoo, I did not know that humans are more closely related to bonobos than gorillas. At least that is what I read on the info boards… They were very fascinating to watch.. especially a mama and her baby born March 1st…

  9. Carole in San Diego says:

    I am so envious. Frankie is one of my favorites at the zoo. What an entertaining, descriptive account of your experience. I can hardly wait for Part 2.

  10. Judy from las vegas says:

    I heard that the SSP approved mating the orangutans Satu and Indah again. Any news on that? They are one of my favorite animals.

  11. Cynthia Jewell says:

    Sure am looking forward to reading the second part of your story. I love the bonobos. Never saw much of them because they were in a more inacessable part of the zoo and I could never seem to unstick myself from the gorillas and orangs, but once I went to the keeper talk about the bonobos, I was hooked. They are SO fastinating. I ended up buying a $50 book about them from the zoo–very good book by the way. I remember years ago, they were called miniature chimps–although I guess actually they grow up to be near the size of the regular chimps.

    Cynthia Jewell (the Jewell of Florida!)

  12. San Diego Zoo says:

    #10 Judy

    Currently, we do not have plans to breed Satu and Indah.

  13. Kay Davies says:

    Fabulous description of your day with the apes. Isn’t Frankie just the cutest thing ever? Thanks for letting us share.

  14. Karen of Chandler says:

    Thank you for this blog Karyl. I wish there was a cam to watch of the gorillas like the pandas, polar bears, elephants and smaller apes. I love big gorillas. Frank is so cute, I could just give him a great big hug.

  15. francisco says:

    how many gorillas are there at the san diego zoo

    Moderator’s note: 11.