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#GorillaStory: Father and Son Bonding

  • Gorillas Baraka and 7-month-old Moke.
    Photo 1 of 2: Baraka gently cups his hands around Moke as he climbs.
  • Gorilla Moke pats his father Baraka on the back.
    Photo 2 of 2: Moke gives his dad, Baraka, a pat on the back.

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.

Watching our western lowland gorillas provides endless moments of fascination. The silverback of our mixed sex troop, Baraka, shared a few bonding moments this week with his 7-month-old son, Moke. Our youngest gorilla was exploring the Great Ape House indoor habitat and climbing the mesh. Baraka approached Moke and watched him for a minute, then gently cupped his hands around Moke's body. Later that day, Baraka was reclining while Moke tooled around behind him. Moke turned towards Baraka and gave his dad a pat on the back!

Last month, I wrote about Kibibi’s distinctive laugh during play bouts with her troop members. Gorilla laughs sound a bit like rapid and short exhalations. Moke laughs, too, and models his laughter after that of his favorite pal! 

Calaya continues to be a spectacular mom, and this week she showed primate keepers and visitors her playful side. One of the gorillas’ favorite enrichment items is a medium-sized ball that we fill with popcorn and other snacks. The gorillas have to use their cognitive skills and manipulate the ball in such a way to get the tasty contents out. Sometimes, even an empty feeder can provide great entertainment for the gorillas! Keepers observed a raucous play session where Calaya tossed the ball and Moke retrieved it multiple times.

Orangutan Lucy snacks on a seasonal treat.

As part of our animal husbandry program, we offer our gorillas and orangutans multiple forms of enrichment every day. It will come as no surprise that items that encourage our animals to use their natural foraging behaviors—like the puzzle feeder mentioned above—are the most popular. We also vary enrichment by season, and one of our recent offerings was a bouquet of fresh marigolds for our apes to eat. This photo shows our eldest orangutan, Lucy, enjoying her autumnal treat. We are incredibly grateful to the people who donate to our animal enrichment fund, which helps us replenish items that are a bit run-down yet well loved by our animals.

Moke forages for some greens.

One of Calaya’s preferred hangout spots is the elevated chute between the indoor habitat and outdoor yard. Where Calaya goes, Moke is never far away. Recently, Calaya was on the ground level, where she gathered two large fleece blankets and two armfuls of hay and began to climb to the chute. Normally when she does this, she dumps the hay just inside the doorway before she hoists herself onto the platform. Moke was sitting just inside the entrance to the chute, and I thought he would be in a tenuous situation if she dumped the large pile on top of him. Calaya held on to her nesting materials and moved into the chute, holding them above Moke’s head. When he looked up and saw the bundle, he took a few steps to the left. Only then did Calaya unload her hefty stash.  

As I mentioned in our last #GorillaStory update, one of Moke’s favorite activities is swinging back and forth on bamboo suspended through the enclosure’s mesh. On a recent occasion, Calaya sat under Moke and watched him play. On his last swing, Moke fell about a foot and landed on his back. Calaya came to the rescue and held him for a few minutes and soothed him. When he walked away, Calaya promptly reached up and pulled the offending bamboo stalk down, flinging it away with great agitation.

Baraka's left hand is in "stiff stance" position.

At first sight, gorillas can be imposing figures. They have an arsenal of physical posturing that showcases just how intimidating they can be. One such change in body posture is known as a “stiff stance”—where they stand higher on their knuckles and elevate their shoulders.

Baraka presses his lips together tightly when he wants to have an intimidating appearance.

Often, this impressive display is accompanied by tightly pressed lips to create a most severe and challenging look. This dramatic show of dominance makes them appear larger and ready for a duel. If you watch the silverbacks closely, you can certainly tell when one is in a particular mood—like this photo of Baraka with a stern face. In the wild, these displays are so impactful that actual physical battles do not always occur.

Silverback gorilla Kojo catches some rays in the outdoor yard of the Great Ape House.

Both of our silverbacks, Baraka and Kojo, generally have soft and gentle-looking facial expressions. But, when they want to show how tough they can be—watch out! We have been seeing some intriguing behavior between these two since Kwame’s departure. When Kwame was here, Kojo worked overtime to try to dethrone his older brother through a series of struts, hits and displays.

Kojo has stepped up his challenging displays and it is pretty clear the he wants a stab at dethroning Baraka and taking the lead of his troop, despite the fact that the two are never in the same enclosure.

Kojo is much more demonstratively assertive now, and Baraka matches his fierceness. Their boisterous duels command our attention throughout the day. Strong odors from their scent glands permeate the Great Ape House, assertive vocalizations ring through the corridors, and chest beats accompanied by pounding fists on doors are a common occurrence these days.

Moke and his mom, Calaya, forage in the Great Ape House.

When the tension flares between Kojo and Baraka, Baraka keeps his troop as far away from Kojo as possible by literally herding his family into the enclosure closest to the building’s exit doors. It is interesting to watch Calaya, Mandara, Kibibi and Moke respond to the silverback dynamic.  They appear relatively calm and they do not have to be cajoled to move away from Kojo. They simply fall in line and stay put until the tension eases. It is always exciting around here!

Planning to visit Moke at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo? The Great Ape House is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Don’t miss the gorilla keeper talk at its new time, 1 p.m.! Check the daily demonstrations calendar for this and other fun animal encounters.