Grunting zoo workers go ape over baby

Baby gorilla Gladys being held by a surrogate human mother at the zoo in Cincinnati. (David Jenike , AP/The Cincinnati Zoo)
Baby gorilla Gladys being held by a surrogate human mother at the zoo in Cincinnati. (David Jenike , AP/The Cincinnati Zoo)

Cincinnati - Some zoo workers in the US are going ape over a baby gorilla.

They are wearing all-black outfits, grunting affectionately and generally imitating mother gorillas to help the month-old baby adjust to a new home and get ready for a surrogate mother.

Later, they will don hairy vests and carry baby Gladys on their backs and put on knee pads and gloves to move around like a gorilla.

They might knuckle-walk and climb a tree with baby on board.

They cuddle her, let her hang on them or squirm in their laps, lie down next to her and talk to her with different guttural sounds.

"Whatever a gorilla mom would do with her baby is what we have to do with this baby," said Ron Evans, the zoo's primate team leader and one of Gladys' human surrogates.

"Everything that we can do... obviously, I'm not producing milk."

He's heading a team of seven to 10 people who work in shifts of eight hours or so to provide the baby with 24-hour companionship.

She came from a zoo in Texas, where she was born 29 January to a first-time mother who showed little maternal instinct. Zoo employees bottle-fed and cared for her there.

The zoos agreed it was best to move her to Cincinnati, where two experienced mother gorillas are available to serve as surrogates.

Evans said the Columbus Zoo in Ohio has been a global pioneer in taking gorilla babies in need of surrogates from other zoos, but this is a first for Cincinnati.

Zoo employees want to be careful, and they have a four- to five-month transition period to make sure that the baby is healthy and will be able to socialise and be accepted within its population of eight other gorillas.

"We don't want to move too fast with her, where we stress out the baby," Evans said. "It's going to be a gradual process."

A suite has been set up for Gladys and the human surrogates within view, hearing and smell of the other gorillas. Evans said that so far, they have responded hospitably.

"Babies have a calming effect on a gorilla community," he said. "The two females were just fixated on that baby."

Zoo spokesperson Tiffany Barnes said the surrogate effort has drawn wide interest, with thousands of e-mails and social media responses.

"At this point, we aren't in need of volunteers, as we are using zoo staff members who have ape behaviour knowledge and experience," she said.

"That being said, if we ever needed volunteers, we know we don't have to look far."


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