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#GorillaStory: Musical Moke

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.

Tomorrow, our western lowland gorilla infant Moke will turn eight months old! He has come such a long way from when he was first born. When he was younger, he would vocalize loudly and flail about when he wanted something and did not get his way. Now, he is much more self-assured and will initiate interactions with the other members of his troop. Physically, he is heartier as well. Whenever he falls or gets pushed, tossed about, or fussed at, he takes it all in stride.

In our last #GorillaStory update, I wrote about Moke’s bravery in receiving his first flu shot. One reader asked if the flu vaccine that our apes receive is the same one that humans receive. The answer is yes! 

Mandara and Kibibi at the Great Ape House in 2009.

Our primate team was reminiscing about the days when Kibibi, who will turn 10 years old next month, was Moke’s age. Her mother, Mandara, kept her in very close proximity for quite a while. Contrast her behavior with that of Calaya, who now allows Moke to explore and will even leave him alone momentarily while she ventures off. This shows just how different mothering styles can be.

Moke rests atop his mom Calaya's back in the Great Ape House.

Why would their behaviors be so different? Could it be because Mandara—having given birth five times prior—is a more experienced mother, while Calaya is a first-time mom? Or perhaps the fact that Kibibi is a female and Moke is a male influences their parenting methods? Status within the troop may also play a role, as everyone in the troop knows that Moke is not to be messed with, lest they face Calaya’s wrath. We will never know for sure, but it is fascinating to surmise!  

Moke holds an enrichment item in his mouth. At eight months old, he is showing a preference for certain toys over others.

Calaya will solicit Moke’s father, Baraka, for wrestling bouts by clapping her hands to summon the troop to play. I would not be surprised if Moke adopts this idiosyncratic behavior as well. Moke continues to make physical contact with Baraka by reaching out to touch him whenever the opportunity presents itself.

During a recent play session involving Calaya, Kibibi, Moke and Baraka, Mandara descended a tree in an adjacent enclosure, happily vocalizing as she made her way over to the group. Moke ran over to her, and she hovered over him for a moment before Calaya ventured over. Although Calaya’s posture was curious and non-aggressive, Mandara stepped back. However, she seemed content to watch the jubilant group from a short distance away.

Calaya’s devotion to Moke is simply charming and clearly displays a doting mother’s behavior. In one poignant moment, Moke was seated in front of Calaya, and she put her hand to his mouth and peeled back his upper and lower lips to inspect his teeth. This behavior was rather unexpected, because he had not been eating any foods that she may have wanted. It was simply a mother’s focused attention on her infant. 

Moke still nurses and will do so for several years, but he continues to sample foods from the troop’s diet. An enrichment coconut offering was met with a chorus of pleasure rumbles (a vocalization that signals contentment). Moke was intent on mouthing a piece of shell, but Calaya took it and slipped it through the mesh. It landed in the keeper walkway out of Moke’s reach. When he found another shard of shell, she did the exact same thing. On a daily basis, Calaya continues to exercise her right to choose which foods and play items are mother-approved. Also, she is not shy about taking food directly from Moke’s mouth. Now, Baraka does the same thing!

Blankets are a favorite enrichment item of the Zoo's great apes, who incorporate the cozy (and colorful) fabric into their nests.

It is not unusual to see Moke manipulate and chew on his enrichment toys with gusto. Sometimes, he will hold a Nylabone in his hand, then toss it into a pile of hay and retrieve it. Once, he did this and Calaya plopped down for a rest right on top of the toy. Moke tried repeatedly to pry it out from under her leg, but her weight made it an impossible task for his limited strength. She seemed unaware of Moke’s plight, or so I thought. Then, I saw her adjust that part of her leg by lifting it ever-so-slightly, just enough for Moke to retrieve his toy.  

Moke seems to especially enjoy Nylabones, which make for great tactile and auditory enrichment. When he can get his hands on two, he will clank them together or do a drum solo of sorts on the mesh. Moke’s play often involves making noise!

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.