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#GorillaStory: Playtime for Moke

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.

Our western lowland gorilla infant Moke turns 5 months old tomorrow, and his confidence is growing just as quickly as he is! For the first time, we were able to capture his weight: 8.2 pounds. Moke’s teeth continue to grow in, though it can be challenging to count them since he moves quite fast now and spends much of his time playing.

5-month-old western lowland gorilla Moke sits on his mother's lap

Moke sits in Calaya's lap.

To encourage physical activity and help keep our gorillas’ minds sharp, we give them between four and eight forms of enrichment every day. This includes presenting them with novel items, such as toys and puzzle feeders.  

This week, we gave the troop some colorful plastic balls and an extra-large yellow LEGO block. Calaya took one of the balls and played with it for a moment before she gave Moke a chance to have fun with it. As I was carrying on with my work, I heard the block clanking about.

I thought Moke was getting a good workout and walked back to the enclosure to see where the noise was coming from. To my surprise, Moke’s dad, Baraka, had the toy, and he was tossing it about in the chute between the indoor enclosure and outdoor yard. When Kibibi approached, Baraka chucked the block towards her so she could play with it. There was only one thing to do—get another block and more balls for all!

Moke plays with a LEGO block

Moke and his mother, Calaya, play with a large LEGO block.

Our gorillas and orangutans have great fun with their enrichment, and we switch out the items daily for variety. As you can imagine, some of the items wear down, and we have to replace them periodically. We are incredibly grateful to the people who donate to our animal enrichment fund, which helps us replenish items that are a bit run-down yet well loved by our animals. Powerful great apes can be tough on their toys!

Moke is a handful for Calaya. When he was younger and would climb, she would pick him up or gently pry his hands away from the mesh. Now, she deftly collects him with one arm and places him down on the hay while she forages. He quickly rights himself and keeps busy by playing with enrichment or initiating bouts of play with Kibibi—as long as Calaya approves. Keepers have observed Baraka holding Moke’s hand twice and nudging it gently. I see him looking at Moke often, and I would love to know what he is thinking when he does so!

Gorilla Moke plays with a ball.

Moke chomps on an enrichment ball.

In addition to watching the gorillas’ behavior, one of the joys of caring for the apes is working with them one-on-one during training sessions. As I mentioned in last week’s update, I am starting to interact with Moke—with Calaya’s permission—through the mesh barrier. I will gently touch his head, hand, or foot and say the name of the body part as I do so, so he can associate my words with the appropriate appendage. Sometimes, I will tickle his belly, and he will close his eyes tightly, scrunch up his face, and grunt while tossing his head back in delight. It is a sign of pure bliss and is the cutest thing ever!

One affiliative behavior that we see from time to time involves Mandara and Calaya. One of the females will approach the other. They will engage in a sideways embrace and walk a short distance in this position. The accompanying vocalizations are lower in tone than the pleasure rumbles that we normally hear. While Moke is holding on to Calaya, Mandara will gently touch his head or put her hand on his back. Then, this behavior comes to an abrupt end.


Mandara spending time in the outdoor yard.

Mandara’s mothering instincts took hold of her again this week, and twice she took Moke away without Calaya’s approval. This caused some tension within the troop. However, an interesting development occurred—Moke started to bite Mandara and attempted to crawl away from her! Moke was well aware that something was amiss and did not approve of Mandara separating him from mom. Both times, Calaya was able to successfully retrieve Moke. Mandara’s assertive approach is clearly concerning to Calaya (and Moke). As Kibibi’s recent successful encounters with Moke have shown, a softer approach tends to work best.


A portrait of Kwame at his farewell party.

On Sept. 6, we transferred Kwame to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. He is settling in nicely and making strong efforts to get to know his troop members. One of the females even gave him an offering of browse through the mesh, just as Baraka did for Calaya when she first arrived! Kwame is a very socially savvy and adaptable gorilla. We are confident that he will be a successful silverback and remain a dominant, yet diplomatic, leader for his new family.

Gorilla Kojo August 2018

Kojo explores the yard of the Great Ape House.

Meanwhile, Kojo has adjusted well to his brother’s departure. He is displaying more often with frequent charging bursts of power—a sure sign of his increased confidence. The primate team continues to keep him engaged with copious enrichment, training and play sessions. Also, he continues to interact with Moke’s troop through the mesh “howdy” door. Kojo and Calaya interact the most. This past week, he charged at Calaya in his typical manner. Calaya handed Moke to Kibibi, who was nearby, and charged at Kojo with seemingly equal force! These two certainly have strong feelings toward each other and it will be interesting to watch their encounters develop as Moke grows.

Can’t get enough of Moke? Visit him at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Great Ape House from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Please note that the gorillas have the option to rest in an off-exhibit enclosure if they choose. Don’t miss the gorilla keeper chat, which takes place at 11:30 a.m. daily, to get the latest scoop on our troop.