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San Diego Zoo Safari Park Celebrates Gorilla’s First Birthday

Joanne, a western lowland gorilla, digs out the frozen treats inside her first birthday cake Thursday morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Joanne, a western lowland gorilla, digs out the frozen treats inside her first birthday cake Thursday morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Guests were lined up along the entire gorilla-viewing area this morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to watch the troop’s reaction to the gifts and decorations for Joanne’s first birthday.

The birthday girl rode out on her mother’s back and stayed there while her mother, Imani, swiped up an ice cupcake–made with pureed yams–and hopped down when mom stopped to lick a mirrored toy smeared with peanut butter. The rest of the troop scattered throughout the exhibit to try to find their favorite snacks.

There were two cakes–a large one for the troop—and a smaller, Joanne-sized cake, both colored orange using oranges, orange juice and pureed yams and sweet potatoes. A Safari Park volunteer even made a cardboard doll house for Joanne with the house number “1” on the front.

Animal care staff had drawn “Happy Birthday Joanne” with chalk on the rock walls at the back of the gorilla habitat and filled the grassy yard with gift boxes filled with treats including sunflower seeds, peanuts, fruit slices and vegetables, encouraging the gorillas to forage for their food, which is a natural behavior for this species.

While the entire troop helped to open the boxes placed around the exhibit, Joanne was happy to dig out the fruit and vegetables that were frozen into her cake. She ventured away from Mom and foraged on her own, and could be seen eating flowers from plant trimmings given to the gorillas by Park horticulture staff.

“This is an extra-special first birthday because Joanne did have a very difficult start coming into the world,” said Peggy Sexton, animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “She had to be born via C-section, and had some medical problems. But those were all resolved in about 10 days and she was re-introduced to the troop and now she’s just as normal as can be.”

Joanne was born on March 12, 2014, at the Paul Harter Veterinary Hospital via a rare emergency C-section, which was needed due to complications during first-time mother Imani’s labor. After spending 11 days in the hospital, Joanne was strong and healthy enough to travel to the gorilla house to be reunited with her mother and meet the rest of the gorilla troop.

Now a year old, Joanne is very active and can be seen running around the grassy habitat in Gorilla Forest and playing with other members of the troop including youngsters, 3-year-old Monroe and 6-year-old Frank. Keepers say that the young males are eager to interact with Joanne and even though Imani is very protective of her baby, she sometimes lets Frank briefly hold her. Younger male, Monroe, often will play a more mischievous role, poking and peering at Joanne before quickly running away.

While her primary source of nutrition is still from nursing, the growing gorilla is curious of any food items that her mother is eating and will watch as Imani forages, mimicking those behaviors by picking up fruits and veggies on her own.

Joanne was named in honor of Joanne Warren, the first chairwoman of the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes onsite wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Photo taken on March 12, 2015 by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291
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Baby Joanne’s Growing Diet

Little Joanne is exploring a whole range of new tastes as she begins to add solid foods to her daily diet.

Little Joanne is exploring a whole range of  tastes and textures as she begins adding solid foods to her diet.

Baby gorilla Joanne continues to grow and develop at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Baby gorillas will continue to nurse until mom chooses to wean them, usually between ages three to four years. Still, at 10 months old and with a full set of baby teeth, Joanne has developed quite a healthy appetite for solid foods!

Western lowland gorillas are herbivores, meaning that they eat only plant material. Each day, we offer the gorillas at the Park a variety of fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, tree branches harvested from the our browse farm, and high-fiber primate biscuits. Little Joanne is developing a taste for her favorites, favorites, although her opinion seems to change almost daily! When Joanne either eagerly devours or spits out something we have offered her, we consider ourselves “updated” as to her preferences.

Keepers feed the gorillas in different ways throughout the day. We spread food items around the exhibit to allow the gorillas to forage at their own pace in addition to calling them to a spot or “station” to receive individual diets specifically measured out for each gorilla. During these station-feeding sessions, Joanne has learned that it benefits her to put some distance between herself and mom, Imani. While Imani is generally patient about letting Joanne finish chewing whatever food is in her mouth, anything in Joanne’s hand or on the ground around her is fair game!

At lunchtime on exhibit, Imani and Joanne station on the upper right-hand hill of the gorilla exhibit, and keepers can toss items to each individually. Morning station feedings in the bedrooms are set aside for training and generally occur as a one-on-one keeper to gorilla session. Since Joanne has become interested in participating in these sessions, she often gets her own keeper with to interact with while Imani focuses on her training on the other side of the bedroom.

For now, these sessions with Joanne are helping her form relationships with her keepers and build up her confidence away from mom. As little Joanne grows older, keepers will begin training her to offer different behaviors useful in our care of her, using her favorite food items as positive reinforcement. As for what those favorite food items will be, Joanne will certainly let us know in her own way!

Jami Pawlowski is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gorilla Joanne: Little Miss Personality.

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Heads Up! Baby Gorilla Takes a Look Around

 Heads Up! Baby Gorilla Takes a Look AroundA four-week-old western lowland gorilla peered up to observe his surrounding while resting on his mother, Jessica, at the San Diego Zoo. The five-pound baby is now more alert and starting to learn about the social dynamics of his troop by observing other members.

This infant is part of a troop that includes silverback leader Paul Donn, 26, mother Jessica, 34, and another female, Ndjia, who is 20 years old. They are expected to have access to the outdoor exhibit as long as weather permits.

San Diego Zoo Global is taking a leadership role in conservation awareness and hosts more than 275,000 schoolchildren on grounds at the San Diego Zoo each year. Guests viewing the gorillas at the San Diego Zoo can observe these animals and learn about threats they face in the wild such as habitat loss.

Photo taken on Jan. 30, 2015, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

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Oh, Joy—It’s a Boy!


On December 26, as we quietly started our morning routine at the Zoo, we found a wonderful surprise: a highly endangered western lowland gorilla had been born! We had just entered the building at 6:15 a.m. when we discovered 34-year-old gorilla Jessica cradling a newborn who looked to be less than an hour old. She was gingerly cleaning her baby boy and clutching him close to her chest. This is the sixth baby for Jessica and, as expected, she is proving to be a great mother once again!

The two other members of her troop, Paul Donn and Ndjia, have been close by ever since the baby’s arrival. This is the fourth offspring for father Paul Donn, a 25-year-old silverback. He’s been a gentle, playful father who is very protective of each of his kids. The other female, 20-year-old Ndjia, is extremely interested in the infant, sitting close to Jessica. In the past, Ndjia has been a great playmate and caregiver to young gorillas and seems to want to continue her warm and inviting ways with the new baby right away. But at this point, the baby is too new and fragile for a mom as protective as Jessica. We are looking forward to watching both Paul and Ndjia interact with this new little boy more and more as he grows and explores his surroundings.

Jessica and her newborn, along with troop-mates Ndjia and Paul, are on exhibit in the afternoons for our guests to view, as weather permits. Since the troop enjoys being next to the glass at the main viewing area (could it be the comforting heaters that line the glass windows?), you can get a wonderful up-close view of our newest bundle of joy!

April Bove-Rothwell and Nerissa Foland are Senior Keepers at the San Diego Zoo.

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Gorilla Snacks

Kale is one of the many leafy green items fed to the Zoo and Safari Park gorillas.

Kale is one of the many leafy green items fed to the Zoo and Safari Park gorillas.

Primarily herbivorous, gorillas eat the leaves and stems of herbs, shrubs, and vines. In agricultural areas, they may raid farms, eating and trampling crops. They will also eat rotten wood. The fleshy fruits of close to a hundred seasonally fruiting tree species make up a large part of their diet. Gorillas get some protein from invertebrates found on leaves and fruits. In the wild, gorillas spend much of the morning and evening feeding in a small area. However, since lowland gorillas rely heavily on fruit, they sometimes travel up to about a half mile or more in search of fruiting trees.

Although they don’t have to travel far at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to find a meal, the gorillas do get a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, low-carb biscuits, and browse (plant material). Browse varieties include acacia, ginger, bamboo, grewia, tipuana, eugenia, and ficus, all grown at the Safari Park. The items are all offered on a rotating basis so they don’t get the same food every day. The gorillas are fed five to six times a day, and food is distributed throughout their bedrooms and exhibit to encourage foraging.

Two of their meals are fed inside the night bedroom. Although the keepers do not go in the bedrooms with the gorillas, we do have limited contact through the bars. This allows us the opportunity to develop relationships with each of the gorillas. Hand feeding creates a bond with each gorilla and facilitates health assessments and distribution of medications. Operant conditioning, a training technique using positive reinforcement and rewards, is also used to further enhance the rapport between the gorillas and the keepers. The gorillas enjoy the individual attention!

Each day the gorilla troop at the Safari Park consumes approximately 5 pounds of fruit (such as apples, oranges, pears), 43 pounds of greens (such as kale, romaine lettuce, spinach), 16.5 pounds of veggies (such as jicama, onions, broccoli), and 7 to 10 branches of browse. Snack food is offered in limited quantities on a rotating basis and may include air-popped popcorn, sunflower seeds, tamarind pods, raisins, prunes, applesauce, peanuts, and popsicles made with fruit juice/nectar.

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Introducing Gorillas to a New Troop.

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How Are Zoo’s Gorillas Faring at Safari Park?

Vila gives Monroe a lift.

Vila gives Monroe a lift.

Gorillas Imani and Frank, formerly residents of the San Diego Zoo, are doing just fine in their new home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park! (See post Gorillas Imani and Frank.) They’ve met the Safari Park’s other gorillas through two barred windows we call “howdies,” and Frank and Monroe, the Park’s 1½ year old, are having a great time playing through the howdies. Of course, it’s very limited contact, but they are obviously having a good time! We are waiting for Imani to cycle before we introduce her to the Park’s silverback, Winston, followed by the Park’s adult females and Monroe.

Much thought and discussion went into this recent gorilla move. The decision was made to move Imani and Frank to the Park to get Monroe and Frank together and buddied up as youngsters so they can live together when they get older in a bachelor troop, if the need arises. Gorillas typically live in single male/multiple female troops; with a 50:50 birth ratio, there are always more males than females that need a social group in which to live. Therefore, some all-male troops must be established. This type of troop also occurs in the wild where it is generally a transient type of social dynamic.

Allowing Frank and Monroe to bond now also provides a tremendous amount of enrichment as well as growth and development opportunities for the little guys. Troops normally would have several females and their offspring, so the energetic youngsters always have playmates at hand. There is no doubt that Frank and Monroe will become best buds and will have tons of fun together.

Frank is also getting to meet more members of his family, as the Park’s Kami is his paternal grandmother, and Vila is his maternal great-grandmother!

Imani was included in the move because of her bond with Frank as his surrogate mom, and there is also, through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for gorillas, a breeding recommendation for Imani and Winston.

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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Gorillas Imani and Frank

Frank will have a new buddy to play with!

Frank will have a new buddy to play with!

On Tuesday, January 22, two of the San Diego Zoo’s gorillas were moved to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This move was recommended by the Species Survival Plan (SSP) program for gorillas and serves to place both in a situation where they will meet and form bonds with other gorillas that are expected to make good companions for the future. The following is information from animal care staff about the move.

After a short freeway ride freeway from the Zoo to the Safari Park, where Frank was peeking through a window to check out his caretakers in the cab of the truck, he and Imani arrived at their new home. Imani is 17 and is Frank’s surrogate mother; Frank is 4½. The move went smoothly as they were transported in their own crate (which they go in every day for training sessions) and unloaded into the Park’s gorilla building. They were a bit scared when being shifted into the rooms they will have in the days until the introductions to the Safari Park’s troop, but calmed down when they realized these rooms were across from the kitchen where the keepers prepare the gorilla diets.

Imani has already caught Winston's eye.

Imani has already caught Winston’s eye.

They were hand fed some of their favorite food items by their keepers. A little later in the day, Frank and Imani were given access to a room where they could see the Park’s troop on exhibit. A lot of positive interactions were seen between the Park’s silverback, Winston, and Imani as they sat close to each other and vocalized. Frank was a little more timid, staying close to Imani but checking out his soon-to-be pal Monroe, age 1½ (who was very clingy to Mom Kokamo). Vila and Kami also checked out their new companions calmly while Kokamo strutted by, tight-lipped at this new female in her presence. The visual introductions concluded at the end of the day as all the gorillas settled into their sleeping quarters for some much-needed rest after a long, eventful day.

Much thought and discussion went into the move. The decision was made to move Imani and Frank to the Park so Monroe and Frank could buddy up as youngsters and live together when they get older in a bachelor troop, if the need arises. Gorillas typically live in single male/multiple female troops, and with a 50:50 birth ratio, there are always more males than females who need a social group in which to live. Therefore, some all-male troops must be established. This type of troop also occurs in the wild, where it is generally a transient type of social dynamic.

Allowing Frank and Monroe to bond now also provides a tremendous amount of enrichment as well as growth and development opportunities for the little guys. Gorilla troops normally have several females and their offspring, so the energetic youngsters always have playmates at hand. There is no doubt that Frank and Monroe will become best buds and will have tons of fun together.

Frank is also getting to meet more members of his family, as Kami is his paternal grandmother, and Vila is his maternal great-grandmother! Imani was included in the move because of her bond with Frank as his surrogate mom, and there is also an SSP breeding recommendation for Imani and Winston.

On Wednesday morning, Frank and Imani got to explore the exhibit for several hours. They cruised all over every inch and seemed to be having a good time, especially when they found that the trees drop figs! They also had access to the gorilla house and spent time engaged in a favorite gorilla pastime: watching the keepers work! After a couple of hours, they came into the house for lunch and the rest of the day. The troop then went out on exhibit. A great day!

April Bove is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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First Birthday for Gorilla Monroe

Monroe sampled goodies during Vila's birthday party in November. He's much larger now!

Gorilla Monroe’s first birthday is Sunday, June 17—Father’s Day, no less! He’s a busy little guy, about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of sheer animation! Perpetually on the go, he runs all over the exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, playing with anything he finds along the way, occasionally giving Dad, Winston, a swat on the rear as he charges past him.

As curious as they come, Monroe can be spotted climbing in and out of boxes, pulling the kale or lettuce leaves off the bushes where the keepers have hung them, climbing the hanging tires, or checking himself out in a mirror. It’s also pretty amusing to watch him practicing his chest beating! At this point, his technique is really coming along; rather than arms just flailing in the air, he actually gets his hands to his chest most of the time.

Next weekend, the “little man” will get a big celebration. On Friday through Sunday, June 15 through 17, there will be extra-special enrichment for the gorillas, including an “ice cake,” at 9 each morning. Come to the Safari Park to wish Monroe a happy birthday!

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, 54th Birthday Party for Gorilla.

Here’s video of his first birthday on Friday:

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54th Birthday Party for Gorilla

Vila examines a birthday "gift."

It was a momentous occasion at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when we celebrated gorilla Vila’s 54th birthday on November 23, 2011. Party guests included gorilla fans of all ages who have generously contributed to the gorillas’ online Animal Care Wish List, providing all kinds of items to pique the gorillas’ interest and stimulate their minds!

The exhibit was decorated with all kinds of fun: large, painted cardboard animals, papier-mache balloons, wrapped packages filled with treats like popcorn, raisins, carrots, bell peppers, apples, magazines with seeds inside, puzzle feeders, plastic balls filled with lettuce and kale, mirrors, paper towel rolls, lots of tasty plants such as ginger, banana leaves, and eugenia. A brightly colored “Happy Birthday” sign and streamers were glued to the wall with peanut butter!

Winston's curiousity is piqued by a colorful "present."

To look at her, you would never guess that Vila is a great-great grandmother, the matriarch of five generations of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Born in 1957, Vila was raised at the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, where she grew to be a favorite among visitors and an important ambassador for her species. Participating in a landmark study on great ape intelligence that spanned six years, Vila contributed to the base of scientific knowledge about gorillas. Then paired with Albert, another San Diego legend, she gave birth in 1965 to Alvila, the first gorilla born in San Diego and only the fifth gorilla to be born in a zoo.

Upon moving to the Safari Park in 1975, Vila quickly endeared herself to the visitors and staff. Although reproductive problems prevented her from maintaining additional pregnancies, Vila’s gentleness and patience with infants made her a perfect candidate to be a surrogate mother for infants whose own mothers could not or would not take care of them. One such infant was her granddaughter, Alberta. Raised in the Park’s Animal Care Center, Alberta started making daily visits to the gorilla exhibit with her keepers at four months of age. It was Vila’s calm manner and sustained interest in the infant that earned Vila the opportunity to raise her granddaughter.

Winston strikes a pose next to a whimisical cardboard creature.

While Vila acted as a surrogate mother for hand-reared infants, mother-reared infants have also gravitated toward her. This attraction proved invaluable when Vila took over the care of Schroeder, a three-year-old whose mother had died of a rare condition. Although he no longer needed to nurse, such a young gorilla would still be in need of nurturing. Fortunately, he and Vila had already established an exceptionally strong bond, and she immediately took over his care, insuring his place in the troop.

Characteristically, Vila is letting our newest baby, little Monroe, call the shots in their relationship! At five months of age, the little guy is really starting to explore, and his mom, Kokamo, ever watchful, is loosening her grip. Just this morning, Monroe had his nose right next to Vila’s face as she ate some melon, and later, when he was clumsily trying to climb a hanging tire, Vila lent a helping hand and cradled his head in her palm.

Kokamo and son Monroe enjoy some leafy goodies.

Vila has a long history of nurturing infants and mentoring other gorillas, which not only establishes her as an invaluable member of the troop but also identifies the strength of the troop social dynamic and family unit. The capability of gorillas to overcome inadequacies in their rearing through the establishment of conspecific relationships is remarkable. The relationships between the individuals continue to evolve as youngsters are born into the troop and throughout all the stages of life.

Little is known about gerontology in gorillas, as they have only been studied in the wild since the mid-1960s. Throughout her life, Vila has and will continue to contribute immeasurably to the scientific base of knowledge for her species. She also continues to add a rich dimension to the daily life of her troop. It is a rare opportunity we have at the Safari Park to witness such a remarkably full gorilla life and vibrant, natural troop dynamic.

At the impressive age of 54, Vila is an elderly, but quite healthy, gorilla. Living in southern California certainly seems to agree with her. She receives a daily senior multivitamin. She has lost some teeth and, yes, tooth loss and periodontal disease have been reported in free-ranging gorilla populations. In the wild, this type of condition would eventually lead to the gorilla’s demise. Although Vila has lost a number of teeth throughout her life, she has the distinct advantage of exceptional medical care, and she continues to enjoy an excellent quality of life. Corn on the cob is still a favorite, and she doesn’t miss a kernel!

Watch video of all the fun!

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, A Tribute to Gorilla Alberta.

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Orangutans Inspire Visitors

I must say that Janey and Clyde, the orangutans, have been great conservation ambassadors during our daily keeper talks at the Absolutely Apes exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. Just under a year ago, I began to develop a conservation package that would some day becomepart of a pilot program for the rest of the great ape areas of the Zoo (see Juan’s blog, New Age Orangutan Conservation). Our conservation package includes materials and products that are made of sustainable and/or reused material; these were used as tools to show Zoo visitors options that we, as consumers, have for becoming more eco-friendly at home.

We also display a poster that illustrates an array of products, from cookies to cosmetics, containing palm oil as an ingredient. Deforestation for the production of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia is the Number One threat orangutans face in the wild. With less than 65,000 Sumatran and Borneon orangutans left, it is critical that we help out by simply becoming more conscious consumers. With Janey, Clyde, and the rest of the orangutan family right on the other side of the glass during the presentations, guests walk away with an appreciation and respect for these complex creatures.

The San Diego Zoo will be celebrating Great Ape Awareness Days today through November 16, 2008. There will be six scheduled presentations daily at the orangutan, gorilla, and bonobo exhibits. Each presentation focuses on issues great apes face. Here’s the presentation schedule. We will see you there!

Juan Fernandez is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.