#GorillaStory: I’ll Have What Mom’s Having

This update was written by primate keeper Lynne McMahan.
Baby gorilla poses on all fours and looks into the camera.

10-month-old Zahra has a mouth full of teeth and she isn't afraid to use them.

This little gorilla’s personality is really starting to shine!

Zahra, the youngest of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s western lowland gorilla troop, is getting more feisty by the day. At 10 months old, she is healthy and curious, and developmentally she’s right on track with gorilla infants her age. Of course, she’s always under the watchful eye of her mother, Calaya—but she will play with anything she can get her hands on!

Over the last few months, the animal care team has watched Zahra with admiration while she grows a lot more comfortable with climbing and traveling short distances from Calaya. Her mother is still protective of her baby around most of the other troop members, like Baraka, Kibibi and Mandara, but she’s often willing to let the spirited youngster explore and try new things.

I’ve been able to watch some really cute moments between Zahra and her 5-year-old brother, Moke. Zahra recently learned how to climb the mesh fencing that borders her habitat area, then jump down and tackle and slap fight him from above! She’ll also close her eyes and flail her arms around and try to chest beat when she gets worked up during play sessions. Moke is very gentle with her, and Calaya seems to enjoy the short breaks she gets when her two kids play together. 

Although she still gets most of her nutrition from her mother’s milk, Zahra is especially curious about food. Mostly, she wants to try whatever Calaya is being fed. She’ll try to snatch food right out of her mom’s hands.

Closeup of a baby gorilla in a bed of hay.

Zahra taking a nap in a bed of blankets and hay.

When it comes to mealtime, the keeper team employs a special method called station training that allows us to keep an eye on each gorilla individually. Right before we bring out the food, we hang up colored frisbees that are 'stationed' around the enclosure. Each gorilla has their own color, and we’ve trained each gorilla to sit at their correct color in order to receive their food. That way, while each gorilla eats, the care team can get a close look at each animal to ensure they’re in good health, and the gorillas can get a chance to eat without competition from their troop mates.

During the last month, we’ve started the process of training Zahra to sit at her own station. We hang up a small red frisbee that’s right next to her mom’s large purple frisbee. Each time we feed Calaya at her station, we encourage Zahra to come over to her own red station to receive food, too.

This is Zahra's first introduction to training, and we’ll use this method in the future to teach her other important behaviors, like how to present different body parts and how to move to different areas of the enclosure. In time, she’ll even learn how to take part in voluntary medical techniques, like holding out her arm for vaccination or taking oral medication. But right now, she’s still easily distracted and takes a long time to chew her food. Serious training is a ways away!

Now that springtime has arrived, warm mornings are a great time to come to the Zoo and see Zahra and her family in their outside habitat areas. Her birthday is coming up soon, and the Primates team and I are eagerly planning her birthday party. If you’re curious about Zahra and want to learn more about how we’re caring for her and the rest of the troop, we’d love to see you at the Great Ape House on Monday, May 27!

Want more #GorillaStory updates? Get the latest news on Zahra and the troop here.