#GorillaStory: Sweet Snuggles

This update was written by primate keeper Carly Hornberger.
Western lowland gorilla mother Calaya embraces her daughter Zahra. Father Baraka looks at them in the background.

Since her birth last May, our baby western lowland gorilla, Zahra, has grown and changed so much. I took maternity leave at the end of June, when she was only a month old. At that time, she spent most of the day sleeping and nursing. When I returned to work in November, she was much more alert and aware of her surroundings. This month, she turns 8 months old. I’m happy to say she’s doing great, growing and developing as expected of a baby gorilla. 

Over the last couple months, I have really enjoyed developing a relationship with Zahra. At first, she seemed a little unsure about me since I had not been around as much as the other primate keepers. Lately, I have been able to get more glimmers of her personality.

Zahra can be timid and a little shy. If someone approaches her too quickly, she will run straight to her mother, Calaya, for safety. Calaya is very attentive to Zahra and quick to scoop her up. She seems to be a little more protective of Zahra compared to how she was with Moke when he was Zahra’s age. 

That said, Zahra has started to climb the mesh further away from Calaya. Calaya has also left Zahra to sit by herself once or twice, but not for very long. Mom is always just a few feet away. It’s precious to witness their mother-daughter bond, especially in these early days when Zahra relies heavily on her mom.

Lately, Zahra has been getting more brave. Now, she comes over to me when I stand at the mesh. She is very curious and will inspect and taste everything she can get her hands on, especially food! Calaya usually takes both food and enrichment items from Zahra, who sometimes shows her disapproval with sassy little grunts. Sometimes, she will try to snatch said item back!

Baby gorilla stares into the camera while her mother holds her.

Most of Zahra’s nutrition is coming from Calaya’s milk. Because Calaya doesn’t like to share her diet, we sneak Zahra some small snacks here and there. So far, she has tried baked fruits, applesauce, banana, primate chow, romaine lettuce and many more. Overall, fruits are a big hit.

Every morning, each of our gorillas receives a tiny paper cup of soy yogurt. This is typically how we administer medications, though individuals who are not currently taking medications also receive some yogurt as a treat. Recently, I gave a little drop of it to Zahra, and she was so excited to get her own cup, just like the rest of the troop!

As far as enrichment goes, Zahra does not seem to have a favorite toy just yet. Many of the items we give to our gorilla troop are quite large, so she is still a little small to be using them solo. I have seen her interact with one of our small PVC feeders and lick peanut butter that was hidden in the tube. Mostly, though, Zahra is still learning about the world and how to be a gorilla from her troop members. That in and of itself is very enriching. 

Western lowland gorilla Zahra eating a primate chow biscuit.

Moke continues to adjust. Like a typical big brother, he wants to play a little too rough. Sometimes, Moke will grab Zahra by her leg or arm and take off running. Calaya is quick to stop him and take Zahra back. A few times now during my morning cleaning, I have spotted Calaya and Moke playing—with Moke’s laughter ringing through the habitat and Zahra clinging to Calaya’s back, just along for the ride. Occasionally, the three of them will all snuggle together in a big daytime nest, which is always cute to see.

If you’re planning a visit to the Zoo, stop by the Great Ape House! Zahra is usually most active right after the troop receives breakfast (between 9 and 9:30 a.m.), enrichment (10:30 to 11 a.m.) or dinner time (1-1:30 p.m.). During the colder months, the gorilla troop is usually indoors. But, if the weather is 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, you might be able to catch them outside! 

This story appears in the February 2024 issue of National Zoo News. Want more #GorillaStory updates? Get the latest news on Zahra and the troop here.