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LOW PROFILE Gorilla in Our Midst

A creature of habitat faces big changes at the Dallas Zoo.
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THE ELDER STATESMAN OF THE DALlas Zoo primate department is having a leisurely lunch, although about three dozen people are looking on. Glancing at them frequently, he makes short work of a large head of lettuce, several stalks of celery, and raw sweet potatoes. The spectators, zoo volunteer trainees, chatter excitedly about the way he picks so delicately at an orange half with his huge, stubby fingers. When he’s finished eating, he ambles out of one cage and into another, continually monitoring the visitors’ behavior with a wary eye.

About thirty-five, Om Bom is the oldest of the Dallas Zoological Society’s four gorillas. Regal and vigilant, he sports the distinctive silver fur typical of adult males on his back and buttocks, stands 5-foot-10, and weighs a solid 360 pounds. Slim for his species, he’s on a weight-gain diet that includes peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Om Bom’s caretakers describe him as sedentary and cautious, and quip that if he were human, he would have been a banker. (Well, perhaps not a Texas banker…) And yet, he is in for the change of his life when he and the other gorillas move into their new $4 million habitat in the “Wilds of Africa” exhibit this month. The first phase of the massive $40 million project, the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation and Research Center, will introduce the gorillas to a jungle environment that Om Bom has not seen since he was snatched from his mother by poachers who may have even killed her to get him.

“It is an unfortunate legacy that baby gorillas were routinely kidnapped and sold for export until about ten years ago,” explains the Dallas Zoo’s curator of research, Cynthia Bennett.

In 1954, Om Bom was brought to the St. Louis Zoo, where he spent his childhood and teen years. He came to Dallas in 1973, living since then in a series of gray concrete cages built in the Sixties. Om Bom’s routine began to change in October, when Bennett and Lorraine Metier, animal care manager for primates, started introducing the gorillas to the unfamiliar tastes and sensations they will experience in their new, open-air home.

One day, keepers covered the cage floors with sod. Accustomed to walking on cold, hard concrete, the cautious Om Bom hung from bars and flipped the sod squares over to cut concrete paths for himself.

“Most animals are conservative about their environment,” Meller explains, “and everything about gorillas’ behavior is subtle. Some zoos build beautiful exhibits, and the gorillas just sit there, terrified. Eventually, they all make it outside, but it may take weeks or months for them to explore the entire exhibit. So we are trying to make the transition easier.”

The gorillas are smart and curious, but they depend heavily on the orderly structure of their days. They know that early each morning they’ll get fruit juice and gelatin cubes as a treat. (Om Bom loves his juice so much that if he won’t come to the front of the cage to get it, keepers know that medical attention may be in order.)

The gorillas’ meals arrive at 9 and 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. if the food is late, the females-Jenny, age thirty-four, and Demba, nineteen-bang on their cage doors. Fruits and vegetables are tossed through the bars. Om Bom is a great catcher and seems to make a game of it, hut fellow male Fubo, twenty-two, doesn’t have the same knack, so his produce is rolled to him on the floor.

“They are loo reliant on us now,” says Meller. “We want them to learn to forage more. So we’ve been mixing bits of food in with their hay-things like vegetables, cereals, and fruit-to encourage them to pick through it.”

Bennett and Meller also have spent many hours helping to “gorilla-proof” the Wilds of Africa, mindful that rocks can become missiles hurled at visitors; that some trees might be stripped bare of bark; and that underground pipes, wires, or drain covers might be dug up as the gorillas busy themselves in their new surroundings. The moat’s wall was made higher after professional climbers, searching for possible gorilla escape routes, were able to scale the walls.

While they may appear passive, gorillas are fast and agile, and they’re known for throwing excrement at strangers. When Om Bom feels threatened, he will rush at the keepers or onlookers in a “bluff charge,” slamming a hand or shoulder into a wall in a display of strength. Caretakers keep their distance behind a red demarcation line painted on the floor, just out of reach of those long and powerful hairy arms. Adult male gorillas are so aggressive that they usually must be separated; one per “troop,” or organized group. In the new exhibit, the two troops-Om Bom and Jenny, Fubo and Demba-will be separated by a wall.

The move to the new habitat is giving the zoo a rare scientific opportunity to assess how gorillas deal with change and stress, and to share those findings with other zoos.

Day and night, trained observers sit outside the cages in shifts, their bodies angled away from the animals. The posture signals that they are neutral and non-threatening. Instead of staring at the gorillas, which might be interpreted as a hostile challenge, they glance at them and then divert their eyes to indicate deference.

On the new turf, the observation will continue, but more discreetly. In about half of the 35,000-square-foot enclosure, the gorillas will be visible only by videocamera. In a large, thatched bunker in the north habitat, visitors will watch through a thick one-way glass. Between the north and south habitats is a research station with screened windows and video monitors. There is also a jungle path, complete with mist-making machines (a la Gorillas in the Mist).

“Yes, we are making it harder for people to see them, but when you do see them, it will be a great experience…” says Meller. “Gorillas are not big, furry people. It is easy to ascribe human traits to them, and they certainly have their own unique personalities. But our goal is to minimize interaction and contact with them. They need to be gorillas.”

That is why zoo staffers, ecstatic about the new habitat, hope the public will understand that the new quarters are intended to prod the gorillas to be more like their free-ranging counterparts in jungles half a world away.

Because birth rates of gorillas in captivity are very low, the keepers also hope the new environment will encourage mating. Om Bom has been paired for the past ten years with Jenny, but they are rarely within arms’ length of each other, and haven’t mated. The primate managers hope the habitat, wilh its space, privacy, and natural setting, will change that.

“In the new habitat,” says Meller, “we will be giving them so much more control over their environment.”

Do they want it? Om Bom sits in the sun, his outstretched legs crossed primly at the ankles and his fingers threaded through the bars of his cage. He eyes the human couple in front of him, waving wildly and shouting, “Hey, big guy! How’s it going!?”

Who can tell what he is thinking? A good guess might be “Anything’s an improve ment.”

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