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#GorillaStory: Happy Birthday, Moke!

This update was written by primate curator Meredith Bastian and assistant curator of primates Becky Malinsky.

It is hard to believe that an entire year has passed since the day that Moke, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo's infant western lowland gorilla, was born. In the blink of an eye, he has grown from a fragile newborn to a rambunctious youngster.

Even though this year has passed quickly, a lot has transpired in this little gorilla’s life. Readers have been able to keep up with Moke’s development and learn about his adventures through the #GorillaStory updates over the last year, but we will highlight just a few of our fondest memories.

The most unforgettable memory, hands down, was the day of Moke’s birth. Having the honor of witnessing the entirety of Calaya’s labor, from her water breaking to the delivery of a tiny, perfect gorilla is something we will never forget. We still get goose bumps when we think about that miraculous afternoon!

Another fond memory is the first time we heard Moke laugh. Yes, gorillas laugh, and it is exactly what you think it sounds like — a low, breathy, staccato vocalization.

We heard it on that first occasion during a brief play session with Kibibi. When Moke was younger, Calaya was hesitant to allow him to have interactions with the other members of the gorilla troop, but now, Moke is allowed significant freedom to play with Kibibi almost whenever he wants.

Western lowland gorillas Moke and Kibibi wrestle at the Smithsonian's National Zoo's Great Ape House.

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke demonstrates his ferocity during a playful wrestling match with his best buddy, Kibibi.

These interactions have recently turned into play sessions that involve chasing each other up and down the mesh and trees in their indoor exhibit. Moke is getting plenty of opportunity to fine tune his climbing skills lately — often combined with plenty of laughter!

Many of the behaviors he will eventually exhibit are practiced in the course of these play sessions. Moke is still a little uncoordinated at times, and it will take time for him to develop a full repertoire of gorilla display behaviors. But, he will continue to hone these behaviors over time.

Gorilla Moke and his father, Baraka.

In November 2018, Baraka shared a few bonding moments with his 7-month-old son, Moke, including a pat on the back!

It has also been amazing to watch Moke’s relationship with his dad develop. Baraka has always been extremely gentle and patient with Moke, and we frequently see playful and tender moments shared between the two.

Moke has always had a fearless streak to his personality, even when it comes to interacting with Baraka. Moke has learned that it can’t always be playtime with dad, so he has had to adjust how he approaches Baraka. While they maintain a wonderful relationship with each other, we certainly see Moke defer to Baraka more often, just like the females in the troop do as well.

Western lowland gorilla Calaya and her 9-week-old son, Moke.

At 9 weeks old, western lowland gorilla infant Moke was taking in all of the sights, sounds and scents around him.

Moke is a good genetic mix of both parents in both looks and personality. While Calaya is typically very serious, Moke has a silly side that is more akin to Baraka’s personality. He is inquisitive, too. From a very early age, Moke has been taking in everything around him — including his own fingers and toes — and has been reaching out to touch and mouth all in sight. He continues to be curious about his surroundings and is quite the explorer!

The primate staff is excited to see what the next year will bring for Moke, but until then, we hope that you will either be able to join us in person to celebrate Moke’s first birthday April 15, or watch from afar via our Facebook Live broadcast. The party starts at 9:30 a.m. at the gorilla yard behind Great Ape House. The festivities will include decorated birthday presents, hay feeders containing the gorilla’s favorite treats, and a special ice-cake designed and made by the Zoo’s Department of Nutrition Sciences.

Moke at 4 months old.

At 4 months old, western lowland gorilla infant Moke was already solid on his footing and started giving his mom, Calaya, some good exercise in chasing after him!

As our routine #GorillaStory series comes to a close, his story is just beginning. We hope that you will continue to follow the lives of all our gorillas by visiting the Zoo. Keep an eye on our website for periodic updates on Moke's milestones, and other news about the gorillas and orangutans who reside in the Great Ape House.

The primate team would like to extend a special thank you to those who have followed our #GorillaStory updates from the very beginning. Since November 2017 — when we announced Calaya’s pregnancy — it has been a pleasure to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how our staff prepared for Moke’s arrival and the efforts that have gone into caring for him over the past year. We sincerely appreciate your thoughtful questions, supportive comments and collective passion for these amazing animals!

Wild about Moke? Visit the Great Ape House at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to follow his adventures! The building is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. During your next visit, chat with a member of the primate team at the gorilla keeper talk, which takes place at 1 p.m. daily.