#GorillaStory: Moke Gets His Flu Shot

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.

‘Tis the season for colds and flu—not only for humans, but for our western lowland gorillas and orangutans as well. In keeping with our health care regimen, our 7-month-old gorilla infant Moke had his first flu shot.

In a previous #GorillaStory update, I mentioned that keeper play sessions with Moke were not only fun but also purposeful. He is now acclimated to keepers touching his body, including his head, hands, feet, belly and so forth as part of our positive reinforcement husbandry training program. During these sessions, Moke developed a behavior where he would turn his back and lift up his leg, resting his foot against the mesh. One day, flanked by both his parents, he turned around and hoisted that leg up, at which point the vaccine was successfully injected. He did not even flinch! True to his remarkable persona, Moke simply turned around and accepted a grape halve, as did Calaya and Baraka.

Play sessions in the family troop are plentiful and more punctuated. It is common to see Moke chasing Kibibi around the enclosure. When he is in the throes of play, he opens his mouth wide in such a way that his individual teeth can be clearly seen and counted. I can report he has 15 pearly white teeth. The primate team was also able to obtain Moke’s weight when he climbed upon a scale in the enclosure. His current weight is 12.6 pounds. He has gained almost a pound in the last month, and it is truly amazing to watch him grow.

Moke takes after his mother, Calaya, and this week his sass was on full display! He has a rather short fuse and does not hesitate to let the individual on the receiving end of his ire know exactly how he feels in dramatic terms. Already, we know he is going to morph into an intense silverback—he is so bold for such a young gorilla. Last week, while the group was engaged in a raucous play session, Moke became pretty formidable and did an unmistakable stiff stance with his hair standing on end!

Gorilla Moke plays with an enrichment blanket.
Gorillas receive blankets for enrichment along with other materials for making nests.

When the troop is not playing, it is quite common to see them resting and relaxing on their nests of hay and blankets. I recently spent time with the family troop while they were in a resting mode. Baraka was in his usual reclined position on his back, and Mandara and Kibibi were relaxing as well. Calaya was preparing to ease down for her afternoon nap, but Moke had other ideas. As she settled in, he crawled on her head and proceeded to give her arm a playful chomp. She slid him off, but it was a futile move as he kept coming back. When she had enough, she let out a couple of barks and gave him a few nudges to encourage him to cease and desist! Eventually, he settled down, and the siesta continued.

Gorilla Moke and his father, Baraka.
Moke and his father, Baraka.

In response to our last #GorillaStory update, one reader asked if the primate team was nervous about Baraka being around Moke. Rest assured, Baraka is a very gentle silverback and the leader of his family. He is very protective not only of Moke, but also of the entire troop. He may be a strict disciplinarian at times, but he is also an effective peacekeeper. Baraka frequently pleasure rumbles—a vocalization that denotes a gorilla is content—and he even has a great sense of humor.

Baraka’s humor can be seen during our training sessions. When he is in such a mood, if I cue him to present his hand, he will present his back. Or, if I ask to see his arm, he will instead show me his foot. All the while, he is giving me an unmistakable look of ‘gotcha!’

To give you an even better idea of who Baraka is, take another look at the amazing video of Moke’s birth. Baraka is a discernable figure in the background. He stuck pretty close to Calaya during the birthing process, as did Mandara and Kibibi.

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke plays in a rubber tub for enrichment.
Moke takes a playful tumble out of an enrichment rubber tub.

During an afternoon training session with Calaya, Moke was straddling her back. It was clear that he was one tired little gorilla. After a few moments, he slid down her side and kept a close hold of mom’s leg. I could tell sleep was not far off. Calaya stepped back a bit and was enjoying some grapes when Moke leaned face down in the hay. He was out like a light, with all four limbs tucked under his frame. Baraka came over to Moke and leaned down, gingerly moving his lips back and forth as though grooming his son’s hair. It was not clear whether Baraka was concerned about Moke or if he just wanted to take the opportunity to get close and show some paternal affection. It was a touching gesture and a special moment between father and son.

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.