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#GorillaStory: World Gorilla Day

  • 1.5-year-old western lowland gorilla Moke sits in the Great Ape House yard atop a rock.

This update was written by primate keeper Carolina Powell.

Summer is always an exciting season at the Great Ape House, but this year was extra special as the primate team watched our 1.5-year-old western lowland gorilla infant, Moke, become more confident and independent. Moke still spends the majority of his time watching—and learning from—his troop members: his mom, Calaya; his dad, Baraka; and females Mandara and Kibibi. Of course, being a youngster, he also takes every opportunity he can to play.

Moke peeks out at his dad, Baraka, from behind the climbing structure in the outdoor gorilla yard.

Moke peeks at his dad, Baraka, from behind the climbing structure in the outdoor gorilla yard. 

In our last #GorillaStory update in July, we mentioned that Moke is becoming more bold. That includes soliciting play from his dad. Occasionally, Baraka will oblige briefly, much to Moke’s amusement. One of my favorite memories from the summer was watching Moke as he approached Baraka and slapped him on the back, over and over. Being the patient father that he is, Baraka let this behavior go on for a good while. When he finally turned around to put an end to it, Moke took off running, laughing all the way! What followed was a thrilling—albeit brief—chase. It didn’t take long before Baraka caught up with his son. Most likely, when Moke gets to be a little older, their play sessions will last longer.

Chasing the members of his troop—and being chased—is one of Moke’s favorite pastimes. For him, it is all a fun game. Sometimes, he will try to use food or enrichment items to bait the others, especially mom and dad, into running after him.

Moke runs carrying a stick in the Great Ape House outdoor yard.

Nature is enriching for Moke, too. He bolted across the yard carrying a stick twice his size! 

To encourage our gorillas to forage, we will hide a portion of their daily diet inside enrichment items, such as kong toys and puzzle feeders. Obtaining the treat requires some mental exercise (thinking about how to extract the tasty treat inside) and physical exercise (seeking out, shaking and manipulating the object).

Moke is very lucky because his mom maintains a high rank in the troop’s social structure. This means that she is often able to collect more than one enrichment item, so Moke frequently gets his own. Feeder balls filled with popcorn are a favorite among our gorillas, so they are a particularly coveted item. Calaya is generous in sharing her enrichment with Moke, but only to a point. If there is only one popcorn ball available, she has no problem snatching it away from him.

Western lowland gorilla Moke (left) looks at his best buddy, Kibibi (Right).

Moke and his best buddy, Kibibi. 

Another favorite puzzle feeder is an item called a raisin board. Essentially, it is a durable plastic board with several holes drilled into it. These holes are just large enough for us to stuff small treats—including raisins—into them. Normally, adults have to use a stick to wriggle the raisin out, but Moke’s tiny fingers are just the right size for picking out the treats without the aid of a tool.

Sometimes, Moke will pick up various enrichment items and carry them around when he is in the midst of a “display.” During a display, Moke’s hair stands on end, causing him to puff out and appear larger and more intimidating. Then, he will beat his chest, run over to the mesh or the glass and give it a good slap. Sometimes, he will go the extra mile and drag boomer balls or milk crates around the enclosure with one hand while beating his chest with the other!

Western lowland gorillas Kibibi (left) and Moke (right) embrace in the outdoor yard.

Kibibi and Moke embrace in the gorilla yard. 

Moke has seen both Calaya and Baraka display at their neighbor, our 17-year-old silverback named Kojo, through the mesh door that separates their enclosures. Moke will also imitate that behavior by running at the door and hitting it with his hand.

Our 10-year-old female Kibibi and Moke continue to be the best of pals. They frequently play together, and Kibibi acts like a big sister to Moke—they chase, wrestle with one another and embrace. Calaya seems very comfortable with their interactions. I think she knows Moke is in good hands with Kibibi.

Moke nibbles on a piece of fruit in the outdoor gorilla yard.

Moke nibbles on a piece of fruit. 

As part of our positive reinforcement training program, keepers have been working closely with Moke to teach him behaviors that enable us to evaluate his health. He has mastered following a target from place to place, as well as stationing (remaining in one spot) during training sessions, but his attention span is limited. He continues to learn to present different body parts on cue so we can look for any cuts, scrapes or other injuries that may require veterinary evaluation and treatment. This fall, the primate team is teaching Moke how to voluntarily present his shoulder and hold still for an injection, which will allow for vaccine administration.

When our apes choose to participate in training and do the correct behavior, they are rewarded with lots of verbal praise as well as a favorite food. What each gorilla receives varies since their motivations and preferences differ—just like humans! Moke receives fruit, but some of the adults (both gorillas and orangutans) receive honey as a very special sweet treat. In the last few months, Moke has developed an affinity for certain foods, his favorites being peanut butter, oatmeal and corn. He also enjoys cooked pieces of sweet potato.

For a 1.5-year-old boy with a limited attention span, Moke has been making great progress in learning these behaviors. In fact, he can sometimes be a bit too eager to learn. Sometimes, when Calaya is in the middle of a training session, Moke will make his way over to where she is stationed and try to interrupt. Sometimes, Calaya will move him out of the way, and he shows his displeasure by lightly barking at her or mouthing her arm.

1.5-year-old gorilla Moke will have a white patch of hair on his rump until around the time he turns 4 years old.

Moke's white rump patch lets his troop members know he is still a youngster. 

In her #OrangutanStory update on Bornean orangutan Redd last week, my fellow primate keeper Erin mentioned that Moke is quickly catching up to Redd in terms of his weight. Redd currently weighs 24.5 pounds, and Moke—who is half Redd’s age—tips the scales at 24 pounds! Although it sounds a bit cliché, Moke really has been growing bigger and stronger every day. He still has a white patch of hair on his rump, which informs his troop members of his age and helps his mom keep track of him from a distance. He will have this patch until around the time he turns four.

Close-up photo of 1.5-year-old western lowland gorilla Moke.

Moke chews on a bit of tree bark. 

Next Tuesday, Sept. 24, is World Gorilla Day, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Karisoke Research Center—the longest-running gorilla field site dedicated to the conservation, protection and study of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. One very easy way that those of us in the United States can help gorilla conservation efforts in the wild is by recycling our electronics—things like cellphones, tablets and laptops. These devices all contain a metallic ore called coltan, which is mined from the forests where gorillas live in the wild. When we recycle these items, the coltan can be used in the development of new devices, thereby diminishing the need to mine more coltan and saving gorilla habitat from deforestation.

On Tuesday, we will be joining the World Gorilla Day celebration by offering our gorillas special themed enrichment in both the indoor and outdoor habitats at 11:30 a.m. Keepers and volunteers will be on hand throughout the day to chat with visitors about our gorillas and share some simple actions folks can do at home to support gorilla conservation. We hope to see you there!

Love Moke? Visit him and his troop at the Great Ape House! Learn about the fascinating world of gorillas—and hear the latest updates on Moke—at the Gorilla Keeper Chat every day at 1 p.m. Check the daily programs schedule to plan your visit. Follow Moke’s story on social media using the hashtag #GorillaStory.