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#GorillaStory: Wrestling with Moke

This update was written by primate keeper Melba Brown.

Autumn is off to an exciting start for our western lowland gorilla infant, Moke. Not only did he celebrate turning 6 months old on Oct. 15, he also received his first pumpkin to ring in Halloween! His encounter with this particular pumpkin was short lived. Within seconds, his mother, Calaya, swooped in and absconded with the treat for herself. Luckily, the primate team prepared a few extra slices, so Moke was able to take a taste and seemed to enjoy it. He continues to grow steadily, and at Moke’s last weigh-in he was 11.8 pounds.

Western lowland gorilla Moke eating pumpkin; six months old.

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke has his first taste of pumpkin.

Even from a younger age, it became clear to keepers that Moke’s emerging personality showed traits that were more reminiscent of his mom than his dad, Baraka. Recently, I was on the receiving end of his attitude. I was giving him some grape halves to eat. When I stopped feeding him, he gave me a stern look squarely in my eyes and grunted in a base tone a few times. It was pretty clear from his vocalizations and behavior that he was not happy that I did not keep the treats coming! At first, I was a bit taken aback by his posturing. On second thought, though, it did not surprise me since Calaya can be one feisty gorilla.

Western lowland gorilla Moke with blanket, 6 months old.

Moke with a blue blanket.

On most days, Moke and his troop spend part of the day inside the Great Ape House and part of the day in the outdoor habitat. As the weather cools, Moke and his troop will be spending more time inside. Gorilla hair is very effective at protecting their skin from the sun and biting insects, but it is rather like human hair in that they do not have an undercoat to keep them warm. If you are planning to visit the Zoo on a day when the temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler, you will find Moke and his troop inside the Great Ape House where it will be warm and toasty. We regulate their indoor environment to keep them as comfortable as possible.

This week has been unseasonably warm, which gave the family troop a chance to spend some quality time outside. Calaya carries Moke on her back more frequently now, so it is not unusual to see him catching some rays while she forages for acorns along the hillside. 

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke on mother Calaya's back, 6 months old.

Moke riding on his mother's back.

Back in an August #GorillaStory update, I wrote about Moke getting “stuck” (i.e. he could not figure out how to climb down) and being rescued by Calaya after he whimpered. Now, that area has become one of his favorites to play in, and he needs no assistance from mom. He is like a giant spider, contorting in various positions and coming out of them with great facility. Often, he will hang from one arm and twist back and forth, which shows just how much strength he has in his tiny frame. He also discovered that a piece of bamboo lodged in the mesh can make a pretty fun swing.

Just this week, Moke was on a high ledge and Calaya was on the ground level. He went to a low-hanging limb and wriggled in such a way to access the lower level. Normally, he would whimper for his mom’s assistance, but this time he dropped to the lower level and Calaya did not attend to him. He sat up and promptly carried on. His independence is remarkable!

On another occasion, Moke was playing in this same area, and Mandara came over with bok choy. She took a bite and offered the piece in her hand to Moke. Then, he started climbing on her and nibbled on her thumb and toe. He climbed on her head and toward her chest, but Mandara adjusted her body and she moved away from him. She displayed a hint of annoyance in her face and simply walked away. Calaya was about 15 feet away foraging on sunflower seeds and she did not appear to mind the interaction between Moke and Mandara.

Gorillas have raucous play sessions, and keepers often hear the apes shuffling about before we can visually assess the situation. This past week, I observed something I had never seen before—Calaya and Baraka were wrestling! Calaya grabbed Baraka’s back in a playful manner, and he matched her actions with gentle force. Meanwhile, Moke watched the play session between his parents intently while sidestepping to keep out of the way of their mock brawl.  

Moke’s presence has changed the group dynamics, and it is so special to see Calaya’s soft side emerge more frequently. She engages in playful wrestling bouts with Kibibi quite often now, and will clap her hands to summon Kibibi to play. In one encounter, Calaya and Moke were tussling with Kibibi. Baraka joined in on the fun for a few moments, piling on top of Calaya and play biting her. Mandara, too, walked over, but rather than jump into the play session, she lay her hand on Kibibi’s head. It was wonderful to see the troop getting along so well.

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke sticks out his tongue, 6 months old.

Moke sticking out his tongue.

If you have attended keeper talks around the Zoo, you have likely heard our animal care team say that visitors can help save species by doing three simple actions: reduce, reuse and recycle. Recycling is common in many households and businesses. It can have a tremendous impact on gorillas’ lives as well as the surroundings in which they live in the wild. One of the metals inside electronic devices that can be recycled is called tantalum, and it is mined from areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where gorillas live. Tantalum is extracted from the ore Columbite-tantalite (commonly known as coltan). It is heat-resistant and can hold a high electrical charge.  

Coltan excavation has resulted in gorilla habitat destruction, and many of the apes fall victim to poachers because of this practice. To help combat these and other abuses, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires United States companies to disclose their coltan mining sources. One way we can help protect these natural resources is by recycling our cell phones, laptops, cameras, gaming consoles, hearing aids, GPS navigation systems, as well as other electronic devices. It may sound like a small action, but recycling electronics can greatly help reduce the need for more expansive coltan mining.

Western lowland gorilla infant Moke holds food in his hand, 6 months old.

Moke holding green beans.

A note to our readers: the #GorillaStory blog is transitioning from a weekly to a bi-monthly schedule. The primate team sincerely appreciates your interest in our western lowland gorilla troop, and we look forward to sharing all of Moke’s upcoming milestones with you! 

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.