About Author: Nerissa Foland

Posts by Nerissa Foland


Gorilla Bachelors: A Day in the Life

Maka is the leader of the Zoo's gorilla bachelor troop.

Maka is the leader of the Zoo’s gorilla bachelor troop.

A typical day in the life of the San Diego Zoo’s bachelor brothers, 20-year-old Maka, 13-year-old Mandazzi, and 9-year-old Ekuba includes both some outdoor exhibit time and indoor bedroom time. On this sample day, they are scheduled to go outside in the morning, and our breeding troop will go out in the afternoon. After an early morning wake up to check on how everyone is feeling, a heart-healthy breakfast of low-starch biscuits and their favorite banana leaf browse, it’s time for keepers to head out to clean and set up the exhibit for the day. Keeping the boys active and engaged is a top priority; it’s one of the highlights of my day and most certainly theirs, too!

We have a wonderful and creative team of enrichment volunteers that keep our gorillas well-stocked with fun items like painted gourds, boxes, papier-maché and burlap bags, perfume-scented pine cones, bamboo cups for gelatin or peanut butter, palm husk baskets and comfy hay beds to sleep on (they even take special requests for birthday parties or upcoming holiday themes!)In addition to the enrichment, we also set out plenty of fresh cut browse. The boys get a total of 12 branches of a variety of browse delivered daily by our hard-working forage team. Willow, mulberry, and rusty-leaf fig are always a huge hit!  After we top off the exhibit with a liberal sprinkling of cereal to increase foraging, it’s time for the boys to head outside.

As is the case with all of our primates, the gorillas are part of an extensive training program that allows us to give them excellent medical care. On their way outside, each one of the boys stop in a chute and are asked for a variety of behaviors that allow us to get a good look at them one-on-one and address any issues. For example, we might notice Mandazzi has a hang nail and dry heels, so we file the nail and apply lotion to his feet; Ekuba needs a quick tooth brushing; and Maka has a minor cut on his arm that we will irrigate to promote faster healing. These are a just a few of the over 20 behaviors the gorillas know. This individual time keeps them in top form and develops an invaluable relationship of trust between gorilla and keeper. And it doesn’t hurt that they get yummy fruit and nut pieces hand fed to them during these daily check-ups!

Once outside, the boys enjoy their enrichment and foraging time, check in with a few devoted friends on the other side of the glass (our guests!) and settle in for a mid-morning nap next to the rushing sound of the waterfalls. Like all primates, gorillas like to eat throughout the day, so every couple of hours more food and treats are distributed by a keeper from the roof of the building. The boys each have their favorite “spot” to be in while the food is delivered. Maka usually prefers to hang back either on the “point” or along the side near the waterfalls to keep an eye on things. Ekuba takes the requisite spot between his big brothers, and Mandazzi, ever the foodie, likes to be front and center catching all of his food like a pro center fielder. In addition to fresh produce like yams, broccoli, snap peas, jicama. and green peppers, the boys get treats like peanut butter covered pine cones or Crystal Light-flavored ice treats. This enrichment requires a lot of time to enjoy, so they are occupied until their early afternoon naptime rolls around.

Keepers describe Mandazzi as a "foodie".

Keepers describe Mandazzi as a “foodie”; he’s also usually the first one into the bedrooms at the end of the day.

By mid-afternoon, when the bedrooms have been cleaned and the bedding re-fluffed, it’s time for the boys to come in so that our other troop can head outside. Mandazzi is almost always the first one in. His eager attitude has made him our star patient in training for voluntary cardiac ultrasounds. He has an appointment this afternoon and our veterinarian is already staging the scene. Heart disease is a major concern for adult male gorillas. To help with early identification and treatment of this disease, all four adult male gorillas at the Zoo are trained to allow us to “see” how their hearts are functioning.

Mandazzi comes up to the front of his room where the veterinarian and keeper are set up, positions himself with his chest flush against the mesh separating his space from ours, and an ultrasound probe is placed against his chest to capture images while a keeper gives him treats. Depending on the position and length of time we need him to hold the position, keepers offer the gorilla juice from a squirt bottle, applesauce from a spoon, or hand feed pieces of fruit and nuts. Mandazzi did great and three different angles of his heart were recorded today. He gets a few more treats from a happy veterinarian and then it’s time for second lunch and more fun enrichment!

While inside, the gorillas often get very messy enrichment. There are piles of shredded paper or pine shaving with raisins to dig through. Magazines are sprinkled with seeds and spices and ready to be torn up. Often, their produce and hay is fed out in puzzle feeders that take time to manipulate. With a nature DVD playing on their wall-mounted flat screen TVs and a pile of cardboard boxes to dig through, the boys are busy right up until late afternoon nap time. After a power nap, the boys get another round of browse to strip and eat while the day keeper finishes her/his tasks and updates the evening keeper that takes over the area. As the sun sets, the boys get ready for their evening routine— and more food!

Peaceable, laid-back Ekuba has the ability to enter his brothers' bedrooms at night.

Peaceable, laid-back Ekuba has the ability to enter his brothers’ bedrooms at night.

Each of the boys has their own room at night. They are fed in their separate rooms to make sure everyone gets their fair share. Afterwards, the doors between rooms are opened wide enough for little, peacekeeping Ekuba to mingle. This allows for some socializing but still gives both of the big boys a peaceful night’s sleep without worrying about the other sneaking into “their” room while they are relaxing. Maka is the troop leader, being the oldest brother, but Mandazzi already outweighs him and we are always aware of the possibility of a coup. No such drama tonight, however. All is quiet as bedding is adjusted and sleepy boys are ready to settle in for the night. After all, tomorrow starts with an early morning keeper wake up call, and big bowl of heart healthy biscuits.

Nerissa Foland is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Oh, joy—It’s a Boy!


Monkey Moves

Spot-nosed guenon Abu

Spot-nosed guenon Abu

In the last few months, we have seen many changes in the San Diego Zoo’s Lost Forest zone, not the least of which is the reappearance of some old friends. A few years ago, we said goodbye to some monkey residents when they moved to another area of the Zoo. At the beginning of June, we saw a flurry of monkey moves, and Allen’s swamp monkeys Koni, Marbelina, Murrie, and their family, plus Schmidt’s spot-nosed guenons Patty and Abu, are back! They are currently having a blast in our lower exhibit just west of the hippos while the previous tenants, Allen’s swamp monkeys Msafiri, Jaribu, Sitawi, and Ota, were moved to our upper exhibit.

Swamp monkey Msafiri

Swamp monkey Msafiri

It was a sad day when swamp monkeys Mr. Toad, Bunzi, Karen, Makonnen, and Kinah had to leave the upper exhibit, but plans for an international trip are in the works for them! Although off exhibit now, Mr. Toad and family are enjoying a “room with a view” at our Primate Propagation Center until shipment plans are in place.

As for the 14 monkeys now living in this part of Lost Forest, life has certainly been exciting! All of these moves were completed in just two days, which certainly put our training program to the test! Hard work and cooperative monkeys paid off, and everyone is adjusting very well to their new digs, especially our lively youngsters, Shaba, Layla, Deiriai, and Kasai. And just when things were starting to settle down, Marbelina gave birth to yet another baby, bringing our grand total to five kids under the age of three! With our three adult swamp monkeys outnumbered, spot-nosed guenons Abu and Patty are often seen keeping this kindergarten entertained. To better understand the dynamics in the lower exhibit, I’d like to introduce some of them:

Schmidt’s spot-nosed guenon Patty is our oldest resident at 25 years old. Although she is very tolerant and protective of the kids, she spends the majority of her day lounging around in the bamboo climbing structure. Spot-nosed guenon Abu, on the other hand, is a frisky 15-year-old male and spends most of his day entertaining the kids. It’s a wonderful sight to watch Abu patiently snack on treats while four young swamp monkeys mob him for leftovers. He is very active and probably our most visible monkey in the exhibit. One of his favorite pastimes includes rocking a swing at the top of the bamboo structure. He doesn’t sit IN the swing though; he reserves that for one or two of the swamp monkey kids!

Our adult male swamp monkey, Koni, is a favorite to many people who watched him grow up here at the San Diego Zoo, starting in the Children’s Zoo nursery! He was born in 1998 via c-section and spent the first few months at the nursery. He was successfully reintroduced to his family and grew up in this area. He’s lived in both upper and lower exhibits and knew right where all the best hiding spots were as soon as he came back. Having grown up with African spotted-necked otters, Koni is often seen playing with the otters that share this exhibit. Quick as lightening, he can grab an otter right out of the water! Don’t worry about the otters, though; they get Koni back by sneaking up for a quick goose when he’s not paying attention!

Swamp monkey Marbelina with her newest baby, Waliau

Swamp monkey Marbelina with her newest baby, Walialu

Next up is 11-year-old Marbelina. She came to the San Diego Zoo as an adult and has given birth to six babies! (Read a post about Marbelina, Kinah Meets the Troop). The last baby, Walialu, was born in late June and is just now taking his first few steps away from Mom while on exhibit. Marbie is missing her right rear leg from an injury she sustained at just three months of age. With the addition of a few ladders, Marbelina doesn’t miss out on any of the action on exhibit. She is our dominant female, and three of the five kids out there are hers! Our hopes were originally to introduce another swamp monkey favorite to this group: Kinah! (Read Swamp Monkey Checks Out Visitors.) But although Koni and Marbie are her biological parents, Koni didn’t recognize Kinah as one of his. To prevent Kinah from possibly being injured, the decision was made to keep her with her adoptive parents for now.

Next up, we have another adult female, 10-year-old Murrie. She came to us as a frisky 2-year-old and is now Mom to our two girls, Layla and Deiriai. A few years ago, Murrie sustained a nasty bite on the hand. The injury turned severe pretty quickly, and Murrie’s left hand was amputated. She made a full recovery and shows no signs of slowing down! Murrie is most often seen sitting in the climbing structure grooming her oldest daughter, Layla. Murrie actually gave birth to both of her girls the last time she was living in this area, and we are happy to have them all back with us.

Layla, our oldest juvenile, was born in August of 2006 (read Baby Swamp Monkey). She reminds me a lot of her mom: brave and defiant! Layla often leads the group during the hot afternoon pool time. She loves the water and is often seen diving in the pool right under guest viewing!

Our second-oldest swamp monkey kid is Shaba. He was born here May 2007, quickly teaming up with Layla to wreck havoc! Shaba is a very independent boy who loves to hang out with his best buddy, Abu. If trouble is brewing, Shaba and Abu seem to always be right in the middle of it.

Next in line is Murrie’s other little girl, Deiriai. Born September 2007, she spent just a few months here before the troop left. Deiriai is a very sweet little girl, but due to an altercation with another monkey, spent some time at the Zoo’s hospital (see Deiriai the Swamp Monkey) As a result of the hospital staff’s excellent care and attention, Deiriai is much friendlier to people than some of our other wild kids. I’m happy to say that our little girl made a full recovery and hasn’t looked back! Although a full year younger than her sister, Dee is always right where the action is.

Our second-to-last little guy is 1-year-old Kasai. He’s still adjusting to not being the “baby” anymore. Since Marbie is busy with her new infant, Kasai spends a lot of time with dad Koni. It’s heartwarming to see how good Koni is with all of his kids, and especially with little Kasai. This small tyke may be the bravest kid in the bunch, however, and is the first to run up to keepers for snacks! Kasai’s natural boy instincts also have him trying to keep up with his older brother, Shaba, and their rock-star big buddy, Abu.

This leaves us with our brand-new little boy, Walialu. Marbie gave birth late in the day on June 29, 2009, while still on exhibit. By the time we brought her into the bedroom, Wali was staring at everything and everyone around him. He hasn’t been with us long, but everyone has already fallen madly in love with this little guy and is sad to hear he will be leaving. If all goes as planned, Marbelina, Wali, Kasai, and Koni are scheduled to go to Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia sometime in October. Marbelina has been on loan to the San Diego Zoo, and it’s time for her to head home. In exchange, we’ll hopefully be welcoming a new male to take the place of Koni. We’ll be busy yet again while everyone gets settled down, but as always, I’ll keep you posted!

Nerissa Foland is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


An Otter’s New Friend

This past April in the San Diego Zoo’s Ituri Forest habitat, African spotted-necked otter Pori gave birth to a new baby girl we’ve named Lila. Along with the excitement of this birth, we were also a little apprehensive about how Mom would treat her older daughter, Mugo. Our experience with spotted-necked otters in the past prepared us for the possibility of Mugo being expelled from the group when the new baby and mom joined them.

Pori usually keeps her pup away from the rest of the family for about two months. Two months is when the pup’s fur becomes waterproof and she is ready to take that first dip in the water. There isn’t much research on spotted-necked otter behavior in the wild, but when contacting other institutions that house this species, we’ve found other females also reject their older daughters in correlation to having another litter of pups. So, when Mugo’s behavior indicated that she was being pushed out, we made plans to find an alternative place for her to live. Fortunately for her, another young female spotted-necked otter living at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with her family was in the same predicament and needed a new home. And so Kazana came to the San Diego Zoo and was introduced to Mugo!

As you can imagine, being separated from your family is scary, even a family that is urging you to leave. But I am happy to say that the girls have become fast friends, and I was excited to let them explore their home in Ituri Forest together. For our regular visitors, you know that Ituri Forest has two large exhibits separated by the guest walkway. What you may not realize is that the exhibits are joined only by the otter bedrooms directly under your feet. This allows us to have separate groups of animals live in each exhibit, everyone with their own bedroom space. It also allowed me to continue taking care of Mugo AND her new friend, Kazana! And since Mugo had been in the north exhibit a time or two before, this allowed her to show Kazana the ropes quite quickly.

After a few days of getting familiar with the exhibit, it was time to introduce the girls to the Allen’s swamp monkeys that share their new home! The troop living in the north exhibit is made up of Mr. Toad, Karen, Bunzi, Kinah, and Makonnen (see Nerissa’s previous blog, Swamp Monkey Checks Out Visitors). As usual, Bunzi and her two kids, Kinah and Makonnen, ran straight to the cliffs over the waterway to search for new toys or treats that we frequently hide for them there. As it turned out, we had a new form of enrichment for them that day!

Kinah was the first to spot Mugo and Kazana, and she let out a loud chirp to alert the troop. Having lived with swamp monkeys all her life, Mugo seemed unfazed. Kazana, however, was immediately interested and ran straight up the embankment to get a better look. This caused quite a bit of excitement for monkey mom and babies, and soon the whole monkey troop was chasing Kazana back into the water. This high-speed game of tag went on for a while, but then everyone settled into a new routine. The monkeys went into the high trees to nap, and the otters cruised up the waterfall to find a nice, warm bed for themselves. Of course, all of this was to be repeated every few hours for the next couple of days!

It’s been a few weeks since Mugo and Kazana have joined the swamp monkeys in Ituri Forest, and although they often play tag, much to our guests’ delight, it seems to be all in fun now. I’m now waiting for Mugo and Kazana to up the ante and meet their other neighbors: Helen the forest buffalo, Chelsea the forest hog, and Oboi the red river hog. I’ll keep you posted!

Nerissa Foland is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read a previous blog about the otters of Ituri Forest, Kinah Meets the Otters.

Read a blog about Mugo’s birth, Otter Pup at the Zoo.


Swamp Monkey Checks Out Visitors

Keeper Jasmine demonstrates the fun to be had at Ituri Forest!

Keeper Jasmine Almonte demonstrates the fun to be had at Ituri Forest!

It seems that Kinah never ceases to bring joy to all those around her, and lately, this has included her up close inspection of our guests visiting Ituri Forest. For those readers unfamiliar with Kinah’s life here at the San Diego Zoo, she is our little miracle monkey, hand-raised in the Children’s Zoo after a tough start in life. (See Nerissa’s previous blog, Springtime Monkey Business.) Through the dedication of our staff, Kinah became the strong, independent, and very curious little girl who delights her “fans” by getting right up to the glass for a visit!

Kinah inspects a Zoo visitor.

Kinah inspects a Zoo visitor.

One feature of our north exhibit is the large underwater pool viewing. With the help of some strategically placed logs, Kinah can now come right up to the glass to check out what guests are wearing, snacking on, or carrying in their backpacks. I often come to this spot during the day to encourage guests to show what they have stashed in their pockets or bags. Kinah especially likes children and their stuffed toys. And being true to her swamp monkey self, she’s fascinated by all things shiny and mechanical. Since she must be bored to tears with my fancy ballpoint pen, I help her search out new objects to wonder over hidden in the pockets of other people!

Kinah’s fan base at the window has now spread to the other members of the troop, and it is not uncommon to see Mr. Toad, or Karen, close to the glass checking out a guest’s sunglasses or silk scarf. Not to mention Kinah’s attention-seeking rival and little sister, Makonnen. Since Mak was raised by her mom, Bunzi, she tends to be more shy of people she doesn’t know. But with her big sister around showing no fear, even Makonnen slaps and kicks at the glass to get a cheer from the crowd!

Kinah demonstrates her skills on the floating donut.

Kinah demonstrates her skills on the floating donut.

I’ve also started adding new floating toys to this big pool, and sure enough, Kinah is now a master at directing the floating donut along the glass. The first time she got too far away from land for her to jump safely, I had visions of rescue dancing in my head. I had no reason to worry, though; Kinah happens to be a master of the cannonball! When she wants to get off of the donut but realizes she’s a little too far from land, she jumps as high and far as she can and lands with a big splash in the pool. Since swamp monkeys are very good swimmers, it takes her no time at all to leap back onto a branch and shake her wet coat all over her family!

So, next time you want some laughs and good, clean fun, come visit Kinah! But beware, you may not be able to pry yourself away if she’s anywhere near the floating donut!

Nerissa Foland is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.