This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.
Now that our 13-week-old western lowland gorilla infant Moke is practicing his walking skills, we are beginning to see some interesting changes in the social dynamics of our mixed-sex troop. This week, I observed Moke’s mom, Calaya, place him on the hay and take a step back. At that point, he started to walk in her direction. While facing him, she continued to take steps back, encouraging him to walk! Moke looked directly at his mom and picked up the pace. Her encouragement was remarkable to see.
Calaya has recently started allowing Moke to spend time on his own, though he is still within a few feet of her. He will practice walking or climbing, and even took an interest in one of our enrichment puzzle feeder balls. We give these items to our primates to encourage them to use their natural foraging behavior. We place the apes’ lettuce and other vegetables inside. That way, they have to use cognitive skills and physical energy to obtain the treats inside. Moke actively seeks out food and will take bites and chew, though he still receives the majority of his nutrition from Calaya’s milk.
If you come to visit Moke and are able to view him up close, you may see a developing white spot on his rump. Just like orangutans, gibbons and humans, gorillas are apes and do not have external tails. (We all have a coccyx, or tail bone, though.) For gorillas, the white rump patch distinguishes infants as troop members who need extra special care and protection. You may also catch some of the interactions between Moke and his dad, Baraka. Calaya will allow Moke to walk over to Baraka and touch him, and Baraka will acknowledge Moke with a gentle touch as well.
Like any family, our western lowland gorilla troop will have squabbles amongst themselves. Last weekend, a group of us were in the keeper office when we heard loud vocalizations from the troop. From time to time, there are minor encounters that produce high-pitched screams among the female gorillas. These encounters usually do not last too long, and the troop quickly settles down. On this particular afternoon, we could tell something was obviously very different by the intensity of the vocalizations.
We arrived around the corner in record time to witness quite a sight. To our surprise, Mandara, our 36-year-old mother of six and foster mother of Baraka, was carrying Moke! It was clear from Calaya’s behavior and vocalizations that she did not authorize Mandara to take Moke. She pursued Mandara around several enclosures, but Mandara was very adept at avoiding Calaya. The vocalizations cracked the air like thunder. The tension in the group was palpable.
Mandara spent her time with Moke by vigorously patting him. Kibibi stayed in close contact, patting Moke’s head while he was on Mandara’s back. Moke was calm most of the time he was with Mandara. At times, he did try to nurse from her, and he made vocalizations that Calaya quickly responded to.
The next day, the group took some time to reconnect, but by mid-morning, the dynamic was back to normal. In the days following this squabble, we have been closely monitoring the troop to determine how Mandara was able to take Moke from Calaya.
Before long, the answer was revealed to us. Mandara appears to look for times when Moke is away from Calaya or while Calaya is otherwise engaged to make a move. After the initial take, however, Calaya is more aware of the possibility of another one. The primate keepers and our team of Friends of the National Zoo volunteers will continue to keep an eye on the troop as we work to maintain a balance and harmony in their social dynamics.
Can’t get enough of Moke? Follow the latest updates on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo adorable baby gorilla using the hashtag #GorillaStory. During your next Zoo visit, don’t miss the daily 11:30 a.m. gorilla keeper talk and other amazing animal encounters!