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.
Update: View photos of Frank with his cake…
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