It Takes a Village to Raise a Gorilla

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Frank and his Aunt Imani

Frank and his Aunt Imani

At the San Diego Zoo, 11-year-old lowland gorilla female Azizi was trying hard to care for her firstborn baby. Frank, a healthy male, was born September 4, 2008. Azizi, who was hand reared, was cradling the infant and keeping him close to her body to provide warmth. Though Frank weighed in at a whopping 2.46 kilograms (almost 5½ pounds, big for a newborn gorilla), he still had not been observed nursing by the second day of life. Animal care staff intervened to assess the situation. Frank’s blood glucose was low, as was his body temperature. After correcting for these conditions, we returned him to his mother, but Azizi refused to pick him up. Clearly we had to take over for Azizi, at least temporarily, but we were determined to only help Azizi with Frank while promoting and preserving their early bond. We were careful to never separate the two as we cared for Frank. (See blog, Gorilla Born at the San Diego Zoo.)

Instead of bringing Frank to the Zoo’s nursery facility, we decided to set up a satellite nursery inside the gorilla building close to Azizi so that the two would maintain as much contact as possible. Rather than hand rearing this infant as we have done with previous gorilla infants needing assistance, we decided to try a “rear assisting” program, letting Azizi raise Frank while we simply helped her. Nursery and mammal keepers would work together to provide support for Azizi until she could take over full time.

For the first five days, Frank needed to be housed inside an incubator to maintain his body temperature. After that, we set up a crib and a play area in the hallway where Frank could see and hear his family and they would be constantly aware of him, too. As humans, we do not fully understand all the information that is transmitted from mother or family member to the infant gorilla in the first days and weeks of life. There are no doubt many important lessons that an infant gorilla would miss if reared by humans. As much as we could, we were determined to let the gorillas raise Frank so that he could fully benefit from their care.

Frank was a strong baby, and he ate and gained weight well. Because we were so confident with Azizi’s early maternal care, we were able to give Frank back to her earlier than we have with previous gorilla infants cared for in our nursery. On day 16, we gave Azizi a chance to hold Frank. She was a bit clumsy at first, but little Frank was held and surrounded by his gorilla family.

Each week we increased the time that Frank stayed with his family. Highly intelligent, he soon learned to come into a small room for his bottle feedings. Now it wasn’t only Azizi who was enjoying the new addition to the gorilla group, as the other two adult females were gradually allowed to hold and play with Frank. Both 13-year-old Imani and 14-year-old Ndjia were excited to get a chance to interact with him. Frank’s dance card was full as all three females vied for his attention. Even Frank’s father, Paul Donn, allowed Frank to approach. A gentle (though huge) finger was always extended as a greeting. By 5½ months of age, little Frank was spending all night with the gorillas and was reliably coming to animal care staff for bottle feedings.

Keepers gradually introduced Frank to the huge, lush exhibit at the Zoo’s Gorilla Tropics so that he would be comfortable in the area. On the morning of March 6, 2009, Frank made his exhibit debut with his family. It was his aunt, Imani, who carried Frank outside into the exhibit for the first time. Frank was relaxed as he explored the exhibit or was carried about by his trio of eager gorilla “mothers.”

One might never guess that this confident little six-month-old gorilla was rear-assisted by a dedicated staff of animal services personnel who had his best interests at heart. We could never have accomplished such a successful project without an awesome and gentle family of gorillas to give him back to.

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

Watch video of Frank’s first day on exhibit with his family
See more photos of Frank in What’s New?