Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Gorilla Roll Call at the North Carolina Zoo

If there was such a thing as gorilla roll call, it might have gone something like this yesterday morning, with the visitors calling the names, and the gorillas answering back:

Oh, yes, we see you slinking off near the wall.

All righty, no need to be so grouchy this morning.

Bomassa! Ah, sticking with your mom today, I see you clutching onto Jamani's back. Present. Good.

Acacia! Acacia! Where's Acacia? You can go ahead and take that lettuce in the straw, under the glass. Don't be so timid.

How about little Apollo? Right!  Apollo, we see you, your mom just scooped you up.
Present. Good, all ladies and babies accounted for.

And where's our big man?
N'kosi! N'kosi!
N'kosi!  Where's N'kosi? Where's our silverback today?

N'kosi did not come out Monday to join the rest of the troop. At first we visitors heard there might be some medical tests underway. This is quite routine and happens on a regular schedule. Excellent preventative care is administered by on site corps of veterinarians. But later we heard that N'kosi was under observation. That could mean just about anything. We are not sure if he was hurt, or if he had come down with an illness (gorillas can get colds and flu just as we do). Or maybe he had a little problem with some routine testing and did not bounce back right away. We just don't know. We did not observe any frantic activity among the zoo staff. A team of vets walked in, stayed awhile, and walked out again, quite calmly.  So it's probably not anything particularly worrying.

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But just try telling that to our Gorilla Ladies! They're not buying it. Monday, they acted as I have never seen them act before. They normally emerge in the morning, roam around for awhile in a very relaxed manner, pick up some food, and head over to an area prepared with straw. That's where they lie down and have a nap. Today, they did a very small amount of roaming, and never came over to lie down in the straw. Instead they stayed near the door for most of the day. That's the doorway  way back in the rear, from which N'kosi might emerge. During the short times that the ladies were roaming, they were skittish, nervous, looking over their shoulders at each other. The moms were keeping their babies very close, and the babies were making sure to stay close, too. Here's Apollo in the middle of a running jump. His mom is moving off, and he is building up the power to catch her and jump on her back so he can go too.

When the ladies came out, they did not seem very hungry and did not pursue their typical routine of gathering food. In fact at the end of the day, some of the lettuce lying near the window was still there, untouched. Jamani could be seen holding her son Bomassa, and walking a sideways crab walk, with her back to the wall as she headed toward one of the cave type doorways. Those are small areas where the gorillas can feel protected. Olympia normally lets Apollo roam nearby. But today she picked him up more than once and carted him off. Several times, she appeared to charge Acacia. When a gorilla charges, he or she runs past another gorilla. The idea is to scare, not to harm. And Acacia, when she wanted to go somewhere, would run. There seems to be a very big difference between an aggressive charge, and a scared evasive maneuver. On a normal day, our little Acacia would just walk calmly to her destination, but not Monday. No, Monday, she felt impelled to drum up the energy to run past the other ladies.  Acacia came over to the straw a few times, but never lay down. She would pick up some of the food which was lying there, but would look around very carefully before doing so.

Why? What was happening? Social structure. The gorillas depend profoundly on the social structure of the troop. The silverback is the lynchpin of that dynamic. In addition to breeding, and keeping his family members safe from outsiders, it's N'kosi's job to enforce peace within the troop. When he is not around, the ladies start to get nervous about interference from the other ladies. They just can't relax and be themselves when something is amiss. Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if they are just worried about their Number One. No one can read the mind of a gorilla, but the fact that all the ladies spent most of the day quite close to the backstage doorway makes me think maybe they were missing him and wanted to stay as near as possible hoping to find out soon that N'kosi is all right.