Little Guenon, Big Sister

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Installment #4
Read Installment #3: Little Guenon, Big Exhibit

Gigi was adjusting well to her daily visits to the San Diego Zoo’s Monkey Trails habitat, so we began to increase the time she spent with her family. Her day was now challenging and full. Following a morning weigh-in, Gigi received the first of four bottle feedings at 6 a.m. Then she was packed up and taken to Monkey Trails by 6:30 a.m, not to return to the Children’s Zoo nursery until late afternoon. Her family was anxiously awaiting her arrival and gathered to welcome her. Gigi spent each day in the company of guenons; even her bottle feedings were accomplished remotely without handling. Gigi nursed from her bottle, which was fed through the wire mesh, then went happily about her other activities. Many improvements to her relationships began to surface.

The Wolf’s guenon family was given free access to the exhibit during Gigi’s visits. They had free choice to hang out with Gigi in the bedroom area or to go into the exhibit at any time. They overwhelming chose to stay inside with Gigi. Her dad was tolerant but dignified, surveying his growing family calmly. Brother Dru was a model big brother. He played often and roughly with his sister Mimi. Their play consisted of well-planned attacks against each other, often times from precarious heights punctuated by retreats and tumbles executed throughout the day. However, when Dru played with Gigi, he checked his own behavior and enthusiasm appropriately. When Gigi reached out for Dru, he responded with great care and restraint.

Mom Fifi was constantly in touch, not carrying Gigi as we had hoped, but paying nearly constant attention to her youngest daughter and her activities. Big sister Mimi was the guenon that we were most concerned about. From the beginning, Mimi had shown some rough behavior toward her little sister. Looking back on the time that Mimi displaced Gigi at birth, we were concerned that Mimi would continue to view Gigi as a threat. We could only hope that over time, Mimi would mellow as she realized that Gigi would not replace her or dilute her relationship with her mother.

Gigi was becoming increasingly brave. She left her “safe” place more often and for longer and longer periods of time. Gigi began to hop, play, and climb inside the bedrooms, gathering food items and reaching out to her family. She could reliably be seen sitting on top of Dru’s tail, or suspended above her mother’s head practicing an occasional surprise overhead drop. Eventually, Gigi became brave enough to leave the bedroom and enter the exhibit all by herself. Leticia Plasencia, a senior mammal keeper, was on hand the first time this happened and was able to observe the outcome. Gigi enjoyed the exhibit for some time, playing and exploring. Eventually Gigi decided she had enough and wanted back inside the bedrooms for a rest. Faced with the daunting task of making her way back inside alone, Gigi cried for help. Wisely, keeper Leticia decided to wait and be patient rather than rush in to help Gigi too quickly. Leticia realized that Gigi had the skills and experience to solve the problem on her own. Eventually, Gigi settled down, found her way back into the bedroom by herself, and was calm. She had now mastered the important skill of coming and going on her own as she pleased.

Wild animals are famous for making us feel foolish by doing exactly the opposite of what we expect them to do. We expected that an experienced mom like Fifi would take care of Gigi eventually, but the guenons had a different plan. On one of Leticia’s frequent trips to check on the introduction, she witnessed an unexpected turn of events. Surprisingly, it was Mimi who was carrying her little sister Gigi! The two were instantly and inexplicably inseparable. Later that same day, Mimi carried her new buddy into the exhibit with the family. Mimi took her to several places in the exhibit, including the top of the highest rock area. All was calm, and Gigi enjoyed a long play session in the sunshine. From that day forward, the relationship between the two girls shifted. Mimi stepped into a new role as mentor and began to show consistent support for her sister, Gigi.

Janet Hawes is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.