#GorillaStory: Zahra Goes for a Ride

There’s no better way to celebrate World Gorilla Day than with our adorable animal ambassador, Zahra! Our 3.5-month-old western lowland gorilla infant is on the move, riding on mom Calaya’s back and practicing her walking skills. Primate keeper Lynne McMahan shares some of her favorite moments in this Q+A.  

What has been your favorite Zahra moment in the last few weeks?

For the first time this week, I saw Zahra ride on Calaya’s back! Other keepers and volunteers mentioned they had seen her do this, so I spent a lot of time watching the troop. When they came inside for the day, Calaya marched in with Zahra riding proudly on her back!

This is an exciting milestone for little Zahra, as it would be for any gorilla infant. It is much easier for mother gorillas to travel, forage, feed and interact with other members of the troop if her baby can ride on her back without support.

What is Zahra’s personality like? 

She is adorable, curious and resilient! The first two are self-explanatory, and she is resilient for putting up with the shenanigans from the rest of the troop. During scuffles, she holds on tight to Calaya while the troop works out the conflict. She also puts up with big brother Moke’s antics! He tries to grab at her and play, but Calaya is still very protective.

Western lowland gorillas Zahra, Calaya and Moke in their indoor habitat at Great Ape House.

Calaya holds Zahra in her arms while big brother Moke sits nearby.

Has Zahra reached any new milestones? 

Zahra is practicing walking! We have watched her walk around the outdoor habitat while the rest of the troop forages for breakfast. Indoors, Calaya allows Zahra to get a few feet away before she scoops her back up. One afternoon, Zahra walk right over to her dad—our silverback, Baraka. He slyly reached out to touch Zahra, but Calaya spotted him and quickly picked up Zahra.

When it is feeding time in the afternoon, Zahra is very curious about the foods we offer to Calaya. She will come right up to the mesh and reach out to the keepers to see if she can get anything. Even when we try to hand her bits of food, Calaya swoops in and takes it first.

Zahra will pick up anything within her reach, including hay, sticks and paper enrichment items. She especially likes pieces of lettuce or other food items that Calaya might drop. Sometimes, she will taste test them! It will still be a while before she eats solid food, but in the meantime, she is practicing using her new teeth.

What do you enjoy most about working with gorillas?

What’s not to love about gorillas! Despite their large, intimidating size, they can be quite sweet and, surprisingly, scaredy cats! They can be nervous around new people, when changes are made to their exhibits, or during medical training. They often look to keepers for reassurance. I enjoy being that source of comfort for them.

Every day, we set up their habitats with lots of enrichment toys and puzzle feeders, browse (leafy branches), alfalfa, wood wool and blankets for them to make nests. Once they go outside for the morning, I like to take a few minutes to watch them explore and enjoy all these things. It’s a very peaceful and quiet way to start the morning.

It brings me a lot of joy to watch our gorillas make day beds with the wood wool, cuddle up and nap together outside. Mandara and her daughter, Kibibi, usually lay down in the concrete culvert together. Calaya, Zahra and Moke hang out on the top of the climbing platform. And Baraka keeps a watchful eye over everybody from the back of the habitat. Seeing them relax and soak in the sunshine is one of my favorite things.

Western lowland gorilla Mandara rests in her favorite spot in the Great Ape House outdoor habitat.
Mandara rests in her favorite spot in the Great Ape House outdoor habitat.
Western lowland gorilla Kibibi sits atop a concrete culvert in the Great Ape House outdoor habitat.
Kibibi surveys her surroundings!
Western lowland gorilla Moke sunbathes in the Great Ape House outdoor habitat.
Moke catches some rays!
Western lowland gorilla Calaya forages with baby Zahra hanging onto her arm.
Calaya forages for food while Zahra clings to her mother's arm. 
Western lowland gorilla Zahra mouths some hay.
Zahra explores her surroundings with her mouth! Our 3.5-month-old western lowland gorilla is teething. 
Western lowland gorilla Zahra mouths some enrichment paper left behind by mom Calaya.
Zahra mouths some enrichment paper left behind by Calaya. 

Have the gorillas ever surprised you?

Absolutely! Recently, I saw Mandara—our oldest female—use tools. Following a birthday party for one of the other gorillas, there were many paper plates, cups and decorations inside the enclosures. Mandara grabbed one of the paper cups and used the waterfall to fill the cup and drink from it. I had never seen any of the gorillas do that before. Gorillas don’t typically use tools as much as the orangutans do, which is why this was so surprising. I thought it was the coolest thing!

Do you have a favorite gorilla at the Zoo?

This is a tough question, because they all have different personalities and I like them all for different reasons. That said, Mandara really enjoys interacting with the keepers and having alone time away from the troop. She can be very sweet and pulls at my heart strings when she smacks her lips and points at the bin of peanuts we keep behind-the-scenes for training sessions. I have a hard time walking by without paying her the “peanut toll.”

Western lowland gorilla Zahra rides on mom Calaya's back.
Zahra rides on Calaya's back.

What do you hope visitors take away from meeting our gorillas? 

I hope they enjoy seeing how a gorilla family troop interacts with one another. To me, watching them use their natural behaviors and interact with enrichment is endlessly fascinating! They are amazing ambassadors for western lowland gorillas, which are considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Seeing this rare and charismatic animal in person is such a special experience. After meeting our animals, I hope visitors are inspired to take action to support wild gorilla conservation.

I want to help gorillas? What can I do?

The good news is that you can take action today to help save this species! Share Zahra’s story, and help raise awareness about these gentle and good-natured animals. Taking small actions—think reduce, reuse, recycle—can make a big difference in the lives of Zahra’s wild counterparts.  

For instance—did you know that recycling your electronics can help save gorilla habitat? One of the metals inside electronic devices that can be recycled is called coltan. It is heat-resistant and can hold a high electrical charge. And, it is mined where gorillas live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Recycling electronics can greatly help reduce the need for more expansive coltan mining. Check out some helpful resources and recycle those cell phones, laptops, cameras, gaming consoles, hearing aids and GPS navigation systems that you’re no longer using.

Contributing to a healthier planet for all wildlife would be an excellent way to show our appreciation for these truly great apes, today and every day!

This article appears in the October 2023 issue of National Zoo News. Want more #GorillaStory updates? Get the latest news on Zahra and the troop here.