#GorillaStory: Maternal Training with Calaya

When it comes to caring for babies at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, it takes a village.

For western lowland gorilla Calaya, her village of support is the great ape animal care team and her primary keeper, Melba Brown. Every day, keepers use positive reinforcement training to teach the gorillas husbandry and medical behaviors. This enables the apes to participate voluntarily in their own medical care. When an animal is expecting, keepers will add maternal behaviors to the animals’ training repertoire.

Calaya views photos of gorilla moms and babies

As Brown described in a previous #GorillaStory, Calaya learns best by observing others. Brown shows her photographs of gorilla mothers holding and nursing their babies. While Calaya looks at the images, Brown will say simple phrases such as ‘mom with baby’ or ‘mom feeding baby’ to help Calaya associate the behavior with a verbal description of what is happening.  

“When Calaya was at the Woodland Park Zoo, she saw her mother go through pregnancy, birth and the process of raising an infant” says Brown. “We have every reason to believe that she will be a great mom, too, because the knowledge is already there. Through these training sessions, I am establishing a common language and reinforcing what she already knows to increase the chances that she will care for her infant.”

Calaya with animal keeper Melba Brown and a toy gorilla

To help Calaya put the skills she learns from the photos into practice, keepers have introduced a plush toy gorilla to her. At roughly the size of a newborn gorilla, the plush has a recorder inside that plays baby gorilla vocalizations. Brown will ask Calaya to touch and kiss the plush baby, hold it gently and present her chest so it can nurse. 

“I want to keep Calaya engaged in training throughout her pregnancy and beyond,” said Brown. “Even if all goes well and she takes care of her baby, it is important that she feels comfortable bringing the baby over to me. Any time we have a newborn, we monitor him or her closely to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need from mom’s milk. If Calaya has trouble lactating, she could bring the baby to me for supplemental feeding with formula. We want to give the baby every opportunity to be with mom and the rest of the troop.”

Follow the Zoo’s updates throughout Calaya’s pregnancy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram with the hashtag #gorillastory.