Primates: Quality Family Time

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An orangutan takes a burlap sack enrichment item to be enjoyed from up high.

When I heard about the special Inside Look tour offered during Discovery Days: Absolutely Apes at the San Diego Zoo, it seemed like the perfect “experience gift” for my husband. Even though I work at the Zoo, we enjoy playing “tourist” sometimes…and with behind-the-scenes ape ops, well, it was the ideal Valentine’s gift!

The walking tour took us through Lost Forest (for the first time I didn’t get lost!) and our enthusiastic guide, Kindra, showed us some monkeys along the way and explained the Zoo’s participation in the national Species Survival Plan (SSP) and how we keep the lives of our primates interesting with a variety of enrichment items and husbandry training sessions. For instance, one female spot-nosed guenon is diabetic, and keepers are able to get her into a training chute, turn around, and present her leg or shoulder for an insulin shot. She is rewarded with Craisins.

On our way to the apes, we stopped to speak with Jackie, a keeper of 15 tufted capuchin monkeys. These house cat-sized monkeys are highly intelligent, incredibly dexterous, and can fly through the trees like wind. Speaking to their intellect, they have been described as “chimpanzees in little capuchin suits.” Jackie showed us how the alpha male, Ozzie, likes to trade things with his keeper, slipping twigs and other offerings through the mesh to get a nut from her in return. There’s no denying the capuchin’s clever, problem-solving capabilities!

There are no more than 60 bonobos in zoos in the U.S. and Europe.

Bonobos (formerly called pygmy chimps) are raucous, yet largely peaceable great apes that live in matriarchal groups. Our small tour group was on a platform above the exhibit with longtime bonobo keeper Mike, who shared the ins and outs of bonobo life and what it takes to look after this extraordinary primate.  “Being a bonobo keeper has made me a better dad,” said Mike, “and being a dad has made me a better bonobo keeper.” He proceeded to provide his charges with a “scatter” of food, which generated much vocalizing from the apes. I had never heard their deafening calls when observing them from behind the exhibit glass. Mike has a great deal of respect for the bonobos and shared how they are trained to place their arm through a tube and hold still so keepers can get blood draws or administer medicine when necessary. “In the old days, we had to knock down an animal when we needed a sample or a good look at them,” he said. “Now their lives, and ours, are less stressful thanks to training.”

Our next stop was gorillas. Giddy with excitement, we approached the barn-sized back gate and met keeper April, who ushered us to the gorilla bedroom area, where we peeked from a respectable distance at silverback Maka. I gasped with pleasure at the salty, earthy gorilla scent.  Despite a genetic anomaly that left him a bit smaller than most adult male gorillas, he was an imposing presence. April described the gorilla groups like she was talking about her extended family. There are two gorilla troops at the Zoo and lone male Maka who all take turns out on exhibit. The bedroom areas are spacious and bathed in natural light from several sunroofs.

Frank, our youngest gorilla, is now 3 years old!

April led us up to the roof, where we took in a bird’s-eye view of Paul Donn’s troop. She tossed raisins and broccoli into the exhibit as she “introduced” us to the group. Sweet-faced Imani is one of my all-time favorite gorillas. If I had more hair and was a better knuckle walker, I’m pretty sure we’d be BFF’s. And little Frank is not so little anymore, yet he still sports a white rump patch, the badge of a youngster, and is filling out into a robust little lad. He plays with and copies his mighty father, Paul Donn. I count myself fortunate to share the planet with such noble creatures as gorillas.

We concluded our special great ape tour at the orangutan exhibit, where Janey and company were celebrating her 50th birthday. Though in the wild orangutans would happily live a solitary existence, at the Zoo they seem to enjoy each other and even the lanky, long-armed siamangs that share their exhibit. Their fluid, agile brachiation through the exhibit reminds me how important forests are to more species than I can count, as well as to our closest living relatives, the great apes. This tour has been a glorious glimpse into the rich lives of our simian brethren. Hooray for quality family time!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, A Keeper of Cats.

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