The San Diego Zoo offers scheduled Keeper Talks throughout the day. On Monday, I took in a talk given by April Bove, one of our gorilla keepers. She explained that the Zoo has 11 gorillas, divided into two troops, each led by a handsome and impressive silverback (adult male). The two troops alternate days: while one troop is outside being admired by Zoo visitors, the other troop spends its “off” day indoors in the spacious gorilla “bedrooms.” On this day it was Memba and his troop’s turn to be outside.
Memba is the only wild-born gorilla at the Zoo. He weighs about 350 pounds and takes his duties as guardian of the troop very seriously, always keeping tabs on each member’s whereabouts and breaking up any fights. It can be a stressful job: in the wild, silverbacks are lucky to live 30 years, but Memba is currently 41 years old and doing well! His troop includes females Alvila and Jessica, and sons Mandazzi and Ekuba.
Alvila was born at the Zoo in 1965 and was the first gorilla birth we had. She is currently a great-grandmother as well as the grandmother of Frank, the Zoo’s youngest gorilla, but she is not the oldest gorilla in our collection: that honor goes to her mother, Vila, who resides at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and turned 52 in October! (Read post Gorilla Vila is 52.)
Jessica, age 30, has had five offspring—all boys! Her youngest son is Ekuba, now four years old and the youngest in this troop. He, of course, is the most playful of the group and is the most likely to interact with Zoo guests, especially children. To get your attention, he may bang on or toss mulch at the triple-paned glass panels to see what kind of reaction he can get!
Jessica and Memba’s son, Mandazzi, is almost 8 years old and is considered a “blackback,” a name used for males between 8 and 12 years old. At 12 to 15 years, he will become more silver in color and be called a “silverback.” Ekuba and Mandazzi wrestle with each other daily as they practice the skills they will need to perhaps someday become a troop leader.
Keeper April told visitors that this particular subspecies of gorilla—western lowland gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla (isn’t that the easiest taxonomic name ever?!)—eats mostly fruit, leaves, ants, and termites in the wild. Unlike chimpanzees, they don’t use tools to get those termites; instead, these gorillas are so strong that they just smash the termite mound to get the tasty insects living inside! At the Zoo, our gorillas are fed a variety of produce and browse material six times a day, as well as special treats like Cheerios® and Wheat Chex® cereals. This food is scattered all about the exhibit, giving the gorillas plenty of opportunities to hunt for their meals.
April told me it is “awesome” to work with such a family oriented group of primates. “They are so incredibly smart and challenge me to be the best keeper every day.” Those who don’t like a challenge, she adds, should not be a gorilla keeper!
After April answered questions from guests, she went up to the roof of the gorilla building and tossed down Romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and green peppers to the apes below. Most of the gorillas waited patiently until the treats landed, but not Mandazzi; he caught the heads of lettuce and a few of the peppers in his hands and then dashed around in an upright, bipedal position, scooping up as much food as his arms could hold! It was a comical sight to see, and April assured me that Mandazzi is quite the character in so many ways. She promises to write a blog post about him soon!
Debbie Andreen is an associate editor and blog moderator for the San Diego Zoo.