#GorillaStory: Bright-Eyed Zahra

This update was written by primate keeper Carolina Powell.

Our 2-month-old western lowland gorilla infant, Zahra, is very curious about the world around her. At this age, her world is mostly comprised of her mother, Calaya. Because I am Calaya’s primary trainer, I often am able to get a good look at Zahra, especially when they are near the mesh for a training session. If Zahra is awake, I sometimes wiggle my finger at her. I can see that she’s very alert and paying attention! I’m really looking forward to seeing her personality develop more in the next couple of weeks.

Zahra reached a big milestone in the past month. She has two teeth coming in! We have seen her sucking on her fingers and thumbs—all signs that she is teething. Because she is next to mom all the time, whenever Calaya eats alfalfa hay, the pieces that don’t make it into her mouth usually fall on top of Zahra. Recently, Zahra picked up the hay and put it in her mouth to chew! I am not sure if this is because she is teething or if she was just curious about the hay. Either way, Calaya was too busy eating to notice that Zahra was nibbling her leftovers.

Zahra is also in the very early stages of standing. She will stand on all fours, but she is very wobbly. The next big milestone will be Zahra finding her balance and crawling—even if it’s just a few inches—from one area to another.

Western lowland gorilla Calaya eats while holding her daughter, Zahra. What doesn't end up in Calaya's mouth ends up all over Zahra!

It amazes me how Zahra can seemingly sleep through anything. Her big brother, Moke, moves like a tornado through the habitat, making lots of noise along the way. Still, Zahra will lay in Calaya’s arms—her head cocked back and mouth wide open—sound asleep. Occasionally, when Calaya is holding Zahra, she will give her some gentle pats on her back. I’m not sure if she is trying to soothe her, but it’s very cute!

When the troop was in the outdoor habitat the other day, Calaya placed Zahra safely in the hammock and sat a short distance away on the wooden part of the structure. It was almost as though she was using the hammock as a playpen or crib! This was the first time we had seen Calaya put Zahra down at a distance. Normally, she either carries Zahra, or Zahra will cling to Calaya’s hair as she moves about the exhibit.

I really enjoy watching Baraka (Zahra’s father) and Moke interact with her. Baraka mostly keeps his distance. It is clear that he is very curious about Zahra, but he is quite wary and knows Calaya may not allow him to get too close. That said, if he has the opportunity to do so, he will take it. In one sweet moment, I saw him lying next to Calaya and Zahra, and he appeared to be gently grooming and touching them.

Aside from Calaya, Moke has had the most interaction with Zahra. He is very curious about her. Calaya allows him to touch her but, sometimes, he can be a little rough. He may scratch her head instead of giving it a gentle pat. When that happens, Calaya will push his hand away or move out of reach, letting him know “that’s enough!”

Western lowland gorilla Zahra.

I am sure Mandara and Kibibi are interested in Zahra. However, they will likely keep their distance for a while. Calaya is a very dominant, strong-willed female. Sometimes, she even assumes the role that Baraka, as the silverback, would normally perform. For example, when it is time to go inside, Baraka will be the first to go in, before the rest of the troop. Normally, a silverback would round everyone up and ensure they get inside safely. In our troop, Calaya is the one who does that behavior. If, say, Mandara is lagging behind, Calaya will go back outside to get her. It will be interesting to see how Mandara and Kibibi’s relationship with Zahra evolves as she becomes more independent from mom.

On “cooler” summer says—when the temperature is below 90 degrees Fahrenheit—the gorillas have access to their outdoor habitat. In July, we received a special delivery from our Department of Nutrition Science: three coolers filled with ice! We made a large pile and topped it off with some juice and greens to make it more enticing. Calaya is very wary and suspicious of new things, so I did not see her interact with the ice. Kibibi seemed curious and investigated the greens. Baraka ate the ice, and I saw it drip from his mouth. And, Moke—being the mischievous boy that he is—picked up the ice cubes and threw them!

Want more #GorillaStory updates? Follow the latest news about our western lowland gorilla troop here.