Human surrogates 'gorilla-fy' baby primate with faux-fur and grunts
Published Friday, March 8, 2013 10:05AM EST
Last Updated Friday, March 8, 2013 10:39AM EST
Wearing fake fur vests and communicating in grunts and groans, staff at a Cincinnati zoo are working around the clock to help a baby primate figure out how to be a gorilla.
Gladys, a six-week-old gorilla, was transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo from a Texas facility after her mother displayed a lack of maternal care.
Staff at the zoo's gorilla unit are preparing Gladys to be joined with one of two female gorilla surrogates at the zoo, whom they hope will adopt the little one as their one. But in the meantime, the team leader at the zoo's primate centre Ron Evans says humans are standing in.
"We need to duplicate what a gorilla mother would do with a baby so when that transition happens down the road it won't be such a shock to Gladys, so everything a gorilla mom does, holds their baby 24/7, we try and imitate and that's what we have to do," Evans told CTV's Canada AM Friday.
During their eight-hour shifts, handlers wear black outfits to mimic the colour and even the feel of Gladys' future surrogates. One of the coats is double-sided, for example, to imitate a gorilla's pelt on one side and a gorilla's hairless chest on the other.
They also use a thick, luxurious faux-fur vest which closely replicates actual gorilla fur, Evans said.
"We got this one yesterday and as soon as I put Gladys on it she was on it like Velcro and very comfortable, so this will help facilitate a lot of the things she needs to learn like holding on without a lot of support from mom, riding on the back of something -- things we need to teach Gladys before she can go in with her gorilla mom."
In addition to the fancy faux-fur duds, cuddling and piggy-back rides, handlers are also attempting to teach Gladys the language she will one day use to communicate with her surrogate moms.
Gorillas use roughly 13 different vocalizations, as well as facial expressions and body postures to communicate with each other. Her human surrogates are focusing on a few key "words" or sounds that will help her Gladys communicate, but also to understand what she's being told by other primates.
"Most of what we're concentrating on with Gladys are all positive vocalizations, and those are referred to as belch vocalizations, very guttural sounds, and gorillas make them to each other when they're happy, as a greeting or when they find really good food to eat. They kind of go mmmmggrrrmmmm," Evans said.
But Gladys will also need to know when it's time to back off, which is why handlers will eventually teach her that a short, sharp coughing, or barking sound from another gorilla is meant to be a warning signal.
"It's kind of like, 'this is fair warning you need to stop doing that, I don't like it,' before it goes any further," he said.
There is no definite timeline for when Gladys will graduate from her human handlers and move in with her gorilla surrogates, but Evans said he hopes she will be ready by the time she is three- to five-months old.
He said handlers are already attached to the baby gorilla, and though it will be sad to say goodbye, they are looking forward to achieving their goal of total "gorillification."
"On the rare occasions we need to hand raise a baby gorilla we know everything we do is to get that baby back with a gorilla mom, and that's what's going to make me most happy in this situation," Evans said.