Gandai, a 4-month-old gorilla at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, weighs 10 pounds and has a mouthful of teeth.
She is working toward baby zoo-gorilla milestones — she is already sitting and crawling but has to master walking and the ability to hold on when being carried, among other things. But Gandai is developing her gorilla skills with the help of human keepers, not her mother.
The human parenting is because of safety concerns about her deaf mother, 22-year-old Kumbuka. She lost two infants at another zoo, likely because her hearing loss prevented her from noticing her babies’ distress calls, said zoo spokeswoman JJ Vitale.
So the Jacksonville Zoo took preventive action.
“Keepers stepped in immediately after birth when they saw Kumbuka holding her incorrectly,” Vitale said. “While Kumbuka’s maternal instincts were all good, the positioning was all wrong. With the history of two other infants dying ... we didn’t feel like we could take the risk.”
Since then, Gandai’s keepers have taken turns providing around-the-clock care but hope their intervention is temporary. Gandai is expected to meet her baby zoo-gorilla milestones in a few months and be returned to her mother and the rest of the zoo’s Western lowland gorilla troop.
“Gandai has been making great strides in reaching these goals,” Vitale said. ”... Keepers have not just cared for Gandai like a mother would, but have also focused on getting her to a point where she returns to her mother. It has been both a demanding and rewarding journey.”
To teach her all the things a gorilla needs to know to fit in with the troop, the keepers and Gandai went through “baby boot camp.” Strength conditioning was a priority because the keepers were initially concerned about her gripping ability in her right hand.
“Gandai will need to be able to position herself on Kumbuka when being carried and to right herself when being held or sitting,” Vitale said. “It is crucially important that Gandai be able to navigate her habitat by herself.”
She has been taught to take a bottle through the mesh barrier that separates the troop from keeper staff. But after being returned to her mother, she will need to be able to come to the barrier on her own when called to take supplemental bottles and feedings.
Also, Gandai has been introduced to soft solid foods, such as bananas, steamed sweet potatoes and cooked broccoli. She has been known to pinch or nibble, but is learning “gorilla manners and ... healthy play.”
“Gandai is a feisty little primate,” Vitale said.
She is not currently visible to zoo guests, but public bottle feedings will begin as early as next week, weather permitting.
Kumbuka has remained “in close proximity” to Gandai and she and the rest of the troop are able to interact with the baby through the mesh barrier, Vitale said.
“She was not sad or angry when they had to pull the baby,” she said. “A big part of that is because of the trust she has in our keepers and because she was never fully separated from the infant. ... She is showing interest in Gandai. In fact, all of the gorillas are interested in her.”
Still, when reunification is attempted, Kumbuka could still reject the baby or be unable to care for her, so the zoo has consulted with other zoos about alternative plans. One option may be to explore using one of the zoo’s other female gorillas being a surrogate mother, Vitale said.