Happy Gorilla Birthday, Frank!

Posted at 9:46 am September 2, 2010 by Karyl Carmignani

On September 4, Frank, the crazy-cute gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, will be two years old. This is cause for celebration on many levels and not only because lowland gorillas are an endangered species. Frank’s mother, Azizi, a hand-raised, first-time mom, was not able to hold Frank correctly to nurse him, so keepers had to intervene. Rather than removing Frank from his troop to raise him in the nursery, the committed keepers devised a “rear assisting” program, which allowed Azizi (and his two aunts) to raise Frank while keepers helped out by feeding him and quickly returning him to his family. This strategy was wildly successful, as Frank is now a rotund, confident, 40-pound (18-kilogram) gorilla, adored by his family and fans. (Read Frank the Gorilla: First Year.)

At two-years old, Frank is filling out physically through his chest and back and becoming more coordinated by the day. After all, hanging by one arm and beating your chest with the other takes some practice! Frank has also become more diligent in securing his favorite foods. One day he discovered a coveted tomato, but Aunt Ndjia wanted it. Frank threw himself on top of the tomato and squirted the tomato goodness into his mouth, in case she still wanted to wrest it from him. Clever gorilla! Frank also spends time with Grandmother Alvila, who is getting up in years and seems to really appreciate the antics of her progeny.

Frank’s father, Paul Donn, an imposing silverback by any measure, is an excellent role model, teaching him the fine points of leadership, posturing, and enjoying life in the Zoo’s Lost Forest. They have their rowdy play times, according to senior keeper April Bove, especially in the bedroom areas where they rip around, hay flying, chasing each other until the other one is suddenly “it.” “It’s really funny when 480-pound Paul Donn is chasing this agile little 40-pound gorilla, then suddenly he is ‘tagged’ and Frank takes off after him!”

Frank has been weaned off of his daily bottles as well as his vitamin-packed gruel, so he’s pretty much on his own for dining. In addition to tomatoes, Frank loves eggplant and any kind of fruit. The latter is used for training behaviors necessary for healthy husbandry practices. For instance, gorillas need a series of vaccinations (just like human kids) to stay healthy through childhood, and Frank has been trained to present his thigh and hold still while he gets his injections. Voluntary injections make Frank’s —and the keepers’!— lives much less stressful. And who wouldn’t sit still for a ripe, fresh strawberry? Frank is also willing to present his hands and feet for keepers to inspect and soon will master opening his mouth on command, which enables staff to examine his teeth and gums. His training is based on positive reinforcement, and Frank is perfectly happy to play along and humor his keepers…for a tasty price.

On exhibit daily 9 a.m. to noon, Frank is a fearless, energetic explorer who seems to enjoy interacting with “his public” on the other side of the glass. It’s no act. Frank has a twinkle of mirth in his eyes, even in his most rambunctious moments, and he is on a sturdy trajectory toward maturity. In another ten years, he will be a silverback running his own troop. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Frank’s Ice Cake Birthday Celebration is Saturday, September 4, at 9 a.m. at the San Diego Zoo. Swing on by!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Going Ape, Part II.

Watch video of Frank and his family…

Update: View photos of Frank with his cake…

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20 Responses to “Happy Gorilla Birthday, Frank!”

  1. Dianna from Ohio says:

    I haven’t been a follower of Frankie so didn’t know his background. Poor little guy… Thanks for posting the link to his “1st year”… I also watched the video that was posted on that blog. How cute is he?

    I didn’t realize that the silverbacks are involved in the rearing of the infants… I just assumed they left it all to the females…

    We have an infant female from another zoo that was injured in a family scuffle. She had to have a leg amputated and from what I learned from the Docent, my zoo has had much success with “adoption” in the families. The whole primate family dynamics is very interesting…Thank you for the post!! 🙂

  2. Louise says:

    Congratulations to Frank, and huge thanks to all the folks who made his healthy birthday possible.

  3. Jan in Richmond, VA says:

    I hope you post a video of the event for those of us who enjoy your animals vicariously thru your blogs and web cams.

    Moderator’s note: We’ll post some photos of the fun!

  4. nancy says:

    goodness, it’s hard to believe that little frank is going to be two yrs old already! I have followed this little guy since his beggining! thanks for the up-date. hopefully I will remember to watch on his birthday! what a wonderful troop he was born into. mom, dad, aunties, and his great keepers! kudos to everyone that made this such a success!

  5. Dee in Texas says:

    Happy Birthday Frank. What a great story.

  6. josh says:

    I watched the video about Frank’s second birthday, and have two questions?
    Why was Alvila moved to Paul Donn’s group?
    Secondly, I saw the quote “On exhibit daily 9 a.m. to noon”. I thought the gorilla troops rotated every other day. Are you “breaking the rules”?

    Moderator’s note: Things constantly change in the Zoo world as animal needs are met. Frank and his troop are out in the mornings, Memba and his troop are out in the afternoons.

  7. Diana S. says:

    It is so hard to believe that “Little” Frank is two years old! Though when I saw him the weekend of the B&W Overnight I was astonished to see how much he’d grown. He is still very cute though!! Can’t wait to see photos and/or video of his play with his ice cake.

  8. marlene from Seattle says:


  9. josh says:

    I think I get it now
    1. I’m guessing Paul Donn’s troop is out from 9-12, and Memba’s troop is out from 12-3, then Maka comes out?
    2. What was Alvila moved to Paul Donn’s troop
    3. How does Frank do with his grandmother
    4. Finally the biggest question of all, well not technacly a question…

    Moderator’s note: Yes, you’re correct with the current rotation (subject to change, of course!). I hear that Frank and his grandmother get along well, and she takes comfort in his company.

  10. Claudia says:

    I got to go to Frank’s Birthday. The cake had a big “2” in front, oranges around the top, strawberries around the bottom, filled with beautiful Hybiscus and other frawns and apples and misc things inside. There were banana leaf trees set up all over and palm frawns, several biscut treats and colorful popcicles, and alot of cool loose dirt with peanuts? dropped here and there. One of the aunties grabbed two handfulls of dirt, with nuts in them, to search through. We all thought she would throw it on someone as she walked upright a few steps.

    After most of the items were eaten by him or an Auntie, he actually sat in the ice bowl but not for long, and stuck his head in there several times. Maybe to get what was frozen at the bottom. He backed up each time the large ice bowl was tipped, because ice water came out. Ice, and water, two things that made everything wet, dirty, and mysterious. Like as if, “What is this all over my hand?” I thought it was also cool the way they brush off items with their hair to clean them before eating, even the ice.

    What a fun day! I got “smooches” again from the smallest female, I cant tell who is who. I watched for hours, and Memba’s family came out next, then at the end of the day, Maka. By then all the treats were gone except for the special treats that are tossed from above. Tomatos are a big hit as well as grapes. I waved several times at Maka but I think he is too shy for people, and does not come too close to the glass.

    What fun for all day zoo, lunch at Alberts, night time zoo, and a birthday for Frankie. Thanks San Diego Zoo.

    Moderator’s note: Thanks for sharing Frank’s special day with our readers, Claudia!

  11. Dianna from Ohio says:

    Hi Claudia: Thanks for sharing…. I hope SDZ will have a video posted of the festivities. The family sound like they have loads of personality and like to enteract with the hoomans… The next time I’m at my zoo I’ll have to ask the docents if they do special birthday celebrations for our animals… 🙂

    Moderator’s note: We’ll post some photos in a day or two of the event.

  12. Animal Care Staff says:

    #6 and #9 Josh

    Alvila was moved to Paul Donn’s troop because Mandazzi, the juvenile in Memba’s troop, was engaging in rough play with her, making the older female vulnerable to injury. Memba’s troop is on exhibit in the afternoons and then our male gorilla Maka has exhibit time in the evening.

  13. Logan says:

    He’s so cute…Me and my wife are going to San Diego and cant wait to go too the zoo!

  14. Diana S. says:

    Thank you Claudia for sharing your day with us! It was nice to read about the goings on from someone who was actually present for Little Frank’s big day.

  15. Vickie says:

    Will Maka always be a lone gorilla? Or will he possibly be able to have a troop of his own at the SD Zoo or another Zoo?

    Animal Care Staff respond: Maka will most likely be incorporated into a bachelor group in the future. He spends time with his brother, Mandazzi, on occasion.

  16. josh says:

    I heard Alvila died this morning. Is that true?
    I know she was the matriarch female in Memba’s group, but what about her short stay with Paul Donn?

    Moderator’s note: Yes, it is sad but true. Alvila, a 45-year-old western lowland gorilla that had been a member of the San Diego Zoo family for decades, passed away late this morning (Thursday, September 30). Animal care staff at the Zoo had been working with Alvila for several years to manage a number of age-related conditions that had led to a deteriorating condition and reduced mobility. In recent weeks it had become apparent that medication was no longer effectively managing her pain, and animal care staff made the difficult decision to end her suffering. Alvila was well loved by the many people who worked with her and knew her.

    See comment #12 above regarding her move.

  17. Rose N says:

    I am so very sorry to hear about grandma Alvila’s passing. She was truly part of the San Diego Zoo’s history. My condolences to the keepers and everyone that took care of Alvila at Gorilla Tropics. I know they took excellent care of her.

    When we visited the gorillas on Sept. 4th, baby Frank’s second birthday, we learned from the keepers that Alvila was not doing well. She had been suffering with arthritis for quite some time. During the birthday festivities, we noticed that the troop was quite concerned about Alvila. They took turns going inside the bedroom area to check on her.

    Baby Frank ran back and forth enjoying his cake and playing with dad, Paul Donn. Baby Frank and Paul Donn also stopped by the bedroom to check on grandma. Eventually, the keeper had to close the door to give Alvila some privacy.

    I hope all the gorillas are doing well during this very sad time. I know they will miss her dearly. I will miss seeing Alvila on our next trip to the gorilla exhibit.

  18. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi! Well, I’m a little slow getting to this ape blog page! I do concentrate alot on the pandas and the ellies alot! Anyway, a very belated HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Frank, the youngest gorilla! I know that he had a very nice day with the troop along with his birthday snackies.

    Just read about your oldest gorilla, Alvila, passing away back in late September. My belated condolences to all of the great ape keepers that knew and worked with her for all of those years. 🙁

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone and to all of the great apes! Have a very nice holiday with family and friends!

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  19. Claudia says:

    Anyone addicted to Gorillas??? Can’t wait for SDZ to get a Gorilla Cam??? Try a search for: Prague Zoo – Zoo Praha. It is not all English, but the Gorillas don’t speak English anyway! Click on the Gorilla face in the middle of the page, then click a camera view, and ENJOY. I have watched a baby gorilla for a few months now and he is 6 months old, learning to sort of run, eat things undesirable to humans (ha ha), getting pulled at from all angles, learning to play fight, learning to climb and I am waiting for him to slip down a slope of cement steps any day now. That is the only thing he cant do yet, legs too short. A while ago he would yelp when he was in a different area of the exhibit, or if one of his siblings took him too high. One step at a time, and I just can’t stop watching. The time difference is about 10 hours, so start at 9:00 or 10:00 pm and they are waking up. First it is gray, then the color will come on. About 11:30 the keepers clean, and if you are a night owl, they come back out to eat at about 1:00 AM! I am sure its too much money for us to get a web cam in our habitat? But they sure run it 24 hrs a day. Speaking of day, its not on because its night there, and the screen is grayish. But later the color comes on. Later to you all!

  20. Chari Mercier says:

    To all of you that love the great apes, I’ve got some great news for you! I was just on the Atlanta Zoo website on their zoo news page, and I found out that their western lowland momma gorilla, Kudzoo, will be having her 2nd baby gorilla by late spring 2011 (I’m guessing around late April or mid May). Kudzoo is 16 years old, and has had one baby gorilla 4 years ago who is really doing well and is a part of the troop. She is about 2 months along in her pregnancy which will be 8.5 months total. That’s pretty close to us human moms’ pregnancy of 9 months! You can read the full news story on the AZ website. Hopefully, AZ will keep us updated on Kudzoo’s progress as the months go along.

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL