“Oh, here’s someone you can ask, honey,” a woman at the zoo said to her kid. He looked away shyly.
“She’s a volunteer here, honey, she is here to answer questions”. The boy flushed. I stopped talking about the gorillas and smiled gently at him. He still wouldn’t say a word.
“Do the chimpanzee’s have a toy squirrel that they play with and throw around?” the woman finally asked me.
“No,” I said, “at the Dallas zoo you will never find anything unnatural in the habitats, no toys, blankets or anything like that. The apes play with hay, sticks, rocks and stuff like that.”
“Well then, the one they are flinging around up there must be real,” she looked a little queasy.
“What?” I almost shrieked. “They are throwing around a squirrel? Is it alive?”
“I don’t think it is anymore,” she replied.
“What time is it?” I said as I turned in the direction of the chimpanzees, “there is a keeper talk up there at 11:30 and zoo guest probably won’t want to witness that!”
“It’s 11:30,” she said. I started to run as fast as I could which isn’t very fast because I have weird hips and my foot hurts today.
I got to the chimps just as one of my favorite great ape keepers Will was starting his presentation in front of the glass viewing windows. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Will, can I have a quick word with you?” I asked. He stepped over and I whispered in his ear. He started laughing which was a relief to me because I didn’t know if there was a concern of health issues spreading from a dead squirrel to a chimp.
“Well,” Will announced to the crowd with a grin, “this could be an interesting keeper talk as I have just been informed the chimps may be playing with a dead squirrel!”
Will then went on to point to the different chimps sharing their names and ages. We have a baby chimp named Mashindi whom the zoo guests love to see and Will was a little frustrated that he couldn’t spot him. Suddenly I saw him. “There’s Mashindi, Will!” I said with a smile.
Will and I then looked at each other horrified. Mashindi was rushing right toward the glass and the crowd with a dead squirrel dangling from his mouth who was about half the size he is. There were gasps from the zoo guests. As he arrived in front of the glass, his 6 year old brother Kona grabbed the squirrel out of his mouth and flung it about 10 feet straight up into the air. It landed with a splat.
During the keeper talk there are large metal doors that open to a very heavy mesh fencing and the keepers interact with the animals through that mesh. Will asked another keeper to go get some medical gloves and some fig newtons. Chimps are highly intelligent, highly food motivated and they love fig newtons and rarely get them. They also understand the concept of “trading”. Kona is probably one of the most intelligent chimps in there.
Will put on the gloves and then showed Kona the fig newton which he immediately reached for. Will pulled it back and said, “Trade for the toy.” Kona clapped his hands. “No, Kona, trade for the toy.” Kona opened his mouth so Will could see his teeth. Kona was trying any behavior that might be rewarded. “Trade for the toy, Kona.” And suddenly he understood. He went over and got the dead squirrel and then he and Will together negotiated how to squish the squirrel through the mesh. I couldn’t watch that part. Then the crowd cheered so I opened my eyes just in time to see Kona delight in his treat.
It was pouring rain and the only people at the zoo were the animals, the animal keepers and one volunteer. Guess which one. I love the zoo in the rain because there are no humans and the gorillas are out in their habitat as long as there is no lightening or heavy wind.
A gorilla’s existence in captivity at a place like the Dallas zoo where they are treated with the immense love and respect they deserve, is relatively simple. They don’t have to worry about predators (in the wild, man is their only one, but he is a formidable one), they don’t have to forage for food or look for water, their habitat doesn’t change much and in inclement (a word I never heard until I moved to Dallas!) weather they go inside their temp controlled bedrooms, so they are always very comfortable.
When something different happens, such as a downpour, it’s very novel to them and they take full advantage. It’s party time!
I was alone in the cave, which is usually bustling with zoo guests, with only three layers of treated glass separating me from the four male gorillas who live together in a bachelor group. I was between one and five feet away from them.
All four of them were bipedal which you will see from time to time with gorillas but because of their huge upper bodies, which are tremendously densely muscular, they are usually knuckle walkers. For those of you who don’t know, bipedal means walking like we do, upright on two back legs. I got the distinct impression that because their feet were so muddy, they didn’t also want muddy knuckles. Later, I checked with a gorilla keeper and confirmed that was exactly right. They didn’t want muddy knuckles! It’s amazing what your intuition can teach you when you observe an animal for hours every week.
In the rain the gorillas were dancing, laughing (yes, gorillas laugh), sliding around in the mud, chasing each other and imitating the rain by banging on their heads with their hands, all in a bipedal position. It was astounding.
I watched the gorillas in awe for three hours frolicking in the rain. I would burst out laughing and in the next second be close to tears. I knew I was seeing something very few people will ever have the honor of seeing in their entire lives.
Today I was at the zoo with my beloved Western Lowland Gorillas speaking to zoo guests about them. I have become an amateur expert on these gorgeous apes and almost nothing makes me happier than to be in their presence educating the public about their intelligence, behavior and endangered status. (94,000 Western Lowland Gorillas left in the world. 300 Mountain Gorillas left in the world! 300!!) Juba, a 420 pound boy knows my face and sometimes gives me little kisses from behind the three layers of glass that separate us.
The gorilla habitat is one acre and today at midmorning I could not see one gorilla from the Gorilla Research Station or from any other outdoor viewing deck. I keep track of where the apes are so I can escort the zoo visitors to where they can see them. But I could not see even one. The Dallas zoo creates habitats for the highly intelligent animals to be allowed to get away from humans when they want or need to. Today was very hot and humid and the boys surely were hiding out in the dry mote in shady spots out of view.
Suddenly, I looked from the Station to a viewing deck across the habitat and saw two zoo employees pointing into the habitat who were clearly very engaged. They must see gorillas over there, I thought, so I quickly took off in that direction.
Once I arrived, the guys were gazing over the deck into the habitat with such concentration that I figured one of the gorillas was playing in the water, which is a stunning sight. When I see it, I feel at peace with the world. I walked over close to the two men and looked over the handrail. The breeze was rustling through the trees, the squirrels were having a field day with the gorilla food as usual and the little waterfall was trickling at a somewhat odd pace into the shallow gorilla pool. There was not a gorilla in sight. What are these guys gazing at? I thought.
After a while I finally asked, “What are you guys looking at? I can’t see one gorilla!”
“We are looking at the waterfall,” one of them said.
“Oh,” I giggled, “I was thinking you loved gorillas, but you love waterfalls?”
“Well, we care about them,” he said, “we are the team in charge of the water features at the Dallas Zoo.”
“Look, honey! The Gorilla has gray hair so he must be old like Nana!” a very old woman said to a kid I assumed was her grandchild while pointing to her hair. The woman looked like she was a hundred years old.
As an amateur expert on the Western Lowland Gorilla, I stand in front of their habitat at the Dallas zoo and speak to zoo guests about them. “He’s actually not old,” I said, “he’s 13 which is about 18, 19 in human years. And, he’s not gray he’s silver. He’s a silverback gorilla which means a mature adult. But he’s a young adult.” Nana wasn’t looking at me or hearing me and just kept saying to her grandchild how old this gorilla must be.
“Nana!” a woman of about 38 asserted. “She’s saying he’s not old, you’re not listening to her.” I realized that this was her grandchild and the young one was her great grandchild. “Nana, listen to what the woman is saying!”
Nana looked at me and narrowed her eyes as if trying to focus. “He’s not old?” she asked suspiciously.
“No,” I said, “just silver from maturity.” Nana went on to ask me several questions and as other people gathered around to see the magnificent silverback, Juba, I noticed her flowy shirt had been accidently tucked into her underwear which were showing well above the top of her pants on one side. I was the one to run to the front of the class in junior high to tell the teacher his fly was down before he got eaten alive by a bunch of hormone raging maniacs and I wasn’t going to let Nana continue walking around the zoo like this. I simply reached forward, grabbed her shirt and tugged upward. She realized what was happening, never took her eyes off Juba while she reached back and completed the task. We never said a word about it.
“Where are the chimpanzees?” she finally asked excitedly. I told her how to get to them and told her to look for our one year old baby chimp.
“A baby? Yipeeee!” she exclaimed as she staggered away. “I gotta go find my kids!” Oddly, the granddaughter with the child in the stroller had moved on and left this incredibly old lady by herself. It didn’t seem to bother Nana but it bothered me. This woman wasn’t moving well.
An hour or two later I was leaving the gorilla research station when suddenly Nana appeared. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to drive you crazy with so many questions today,” she said. “But, where are the elephants?” She was alone again.
“I will walk you to the elephants, Nana,” she seemed unstable and it was hot. “Now, up ahead do you want to take the stairs or the stroller ramp?” I asked.
“I know, I look drunk!” she exclaimed with a laugh, “I’ll take the stroller ramp.”
“You don’t look drunk, you just look kinda old,” I said.
“Kinda old,” she giggled under her breath. “I’m on morphine,” she said, “I have cancer.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Wow, morphine, are you dying?”
“Yes,” she said as she hung onto the railing teetering as she walked, “but it’s fine. I’m 85, I smoked from the time I was 16 until I was 66! I should have gotten cancer when I was 21!” she exclaimed as she gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Oh, I see the kids! I’ll just catch up with them. Thank you for your help.”
“Nana,” I said, “just past the elephants are the giraffes and there are two babies in there.”
“Two babies! Yipeeeee!” she said as she waved her arms.
Shortly after Ryan arrived, a termite specialist named Garrett came to give me an estimate on installing a termite control system that I have heard is important here in Texas. Heck, in Scottsdale, all I had to worry about were scorpions and rattlesnakes, my comfort zone. Termites in Texas?!? Eeeeew!
We just moved into a new house and there have been a lot of service people coming and going working on various things. Ryan is an AV/electronics guy and was working quietly in the house for hours. He is smart, gregarious and adorable, probably 28 or 29 years old. He was working in the great room, which is the main room in the house and was privy to my conversations with at least two other service people that day.
I’ve owned a lot of houses in my life. Houses I’ve lived in and houses I’ve rented out and I have a lot of experience dealing with these service guys. I am good at it now but only because I’ve attended the school of very hard knocks for so many years. The first thing Garrett did was pull out a color brochure with diagrams and schematics of all the insidious and horrible things termites can do.
“I don’t want to see that,” I said.
“Uh, what? You don’t?” he said.
“No, I don’t.” I said. “It feels like you are trying to scare me. If a house can be built, anything that goes wrong with it can be fixed and I’m not scared.
Garrett put the menacing brochure away, pulled out another one and began telling me my choices of how to control termites in Texas. It came down to either pumping a “liquid” (which was colored green on the brochure) in gallons under my grass, plants and flowers around the house OR installing “bait houses” around the property.
“What’s in the green liquid?” I asked.
“It’s a non-toxic fluid that the termites cannot get through or survive…”
“It’s a poisonous pesticide then and I don’t want it around my family.” I asserted.
“Well, I wouldn’t call it that. We use it at nursery schools and hospitals and my company has paid for studies so we know it’s safe,” he said rather sheepishly.
“Okay, Garrett, your company paid for the studies and if I had more time I would ask you which nursery schools and hospitals you use that for and I would avoid them like the plague. Pesticides are not an option at my house, in my food or in my garden. Please tell me about that bait choice.”
Long story short, the bait thing is a little less lethal although not pleasant if you are a termite (It stunts their growth so they never come to maturity and can never lay eggs) and after I talk to several neighbors to find out if this is something truly necessary I’ll figure out what I want to do.
Shortly after Garrett left, an air conditioning repairman came. He started by trying to alarm me with dire and disastrous predictions about my units and before even diagnosing the current problem was trying to sell me a pre-paid maintenance program that I know I don’t need. Little did he yet know he had met his match.
“I am not scared.” I said which of course disarmed him. “I’m not scared of air conditioners finally blowing out or anything else about a house blowing out! That’s what things in houses do when their life is over. That’s what we do when our lives are over. I just need to know what is needed right at this moment for this unit to be working correctly.” His face went pale but then he quickly, without drama fixed what needed to be fixed and high tailed it out of my house. Yay!
When he left I closed the door a little harder than I had to and locked it when Ryan bounded over in his youthful enthusiasm with a smile on his face said, “I have to find a woman like you!”
I was completely taken aback. First because I had forgotten he was even in the house and second because I was shocked he said that. It would have made way more sense to me if he had said I have to avoid women like you.
“You can’t have a woman like me.” I blurted back to Ryan.
“What? Why not?” he asked perturbed.
“Because you are too young.” I said. “A woman my age has likely been sabotaged, screwed over, dumped, deceived, betrayed, cheated, ripped off, undermined, manipulated, swindled, stabbed in the back, degraded, mislead, intimidated and humiliated and has finally learned to assert her boundaries on what she is and isn’t willing to tolerate in terms of how she is treated and that takes years. Ninety seven percent of the women your age simply have not been around long enough to experience all that and come out the other end.
“Well then,” he said with twinkle in his eye, “I’m just going to have to find someone older.”
“Well,” I laughed, “she’s going to have to be quite a bit older and I’m married.”
I was in the Gorilla Research Station observing two male gorillas, Shauna at 400 pounds and Juba at 430. Shauna and Juba live together in a beautiful habitat with two other male gorillas in what is called a Bachelor Group. The living arrangement is unlike the normal Gorilla Troop consisting of one silverback male, several females and all of their offspring.
Today Juba and Shauna were pacing, playing rough and agitated and I knew why. In an adjacent habitat there is a troop and it’s silverback, Subira had just returned from a long stay at the zoo hospital. While Juba and Shauna will never be in the same habitat as Subira, they can smell him and a natural competition arises. Juba suddenly pounded on the metal wall separating the two gorilla habitats making a deafening sound and then charged up the hill with Shauna close behind.
Just then a three year old boy ran up to the glass, pointed with his thumb at the apes and said, “I’m gonna go in der and wrestle with dem!” I smiled and glanced at mom and grandmom who giggled.
“Really!?” I said to the boy. “Who do you think will win?”
There was a long pause as he watched the gorillas. He finally pointed with his thumb again.
“Dem!” he said.
“Savuti is coming out of quarantine and will be in his habitat for the first time Wednesday and Thursday,” Tami, a primate keeper said to me. “I need a volunteer observer for Thursday,” she went on, “just to watch and report back what he is doing and if it seems to be going okay, can you do it?”
Many scientists, anthropologists and biologists believe there are 5 great apes; gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. In Texas there are four. Try to guess which one is missing in Texas and why. (Yeah, yeah, I’m messing with Texas.) There are also two lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs. They’re called great apes and lesser apes because the great apes are bigger and much more intelligent than the lesser apes. Still, I wish there was a different name for the lesser apes; like maybe “Smaller Apes” because while they may not be as intelligent as the Greats, they are very intelligent and in my humble opinion, not “less than” apes.
Humans and gorillas share 98.4% exactly the same DNA and with chimpanzees it’s right around 99%. The tiny difference in the apes DNA is significant because gorillas are extremely gentle and not at all aggressive where as chimps can and will be very aggressive; like humans. So we aren’t gorillas or chimpanzees and they aren’t human but we are very closely related.
The word “primate” refers to all monkeys and apes and if you want to know whether you are looking at a monkey or an ape just look to see if the dazzling creature has a tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not. Some monkeys, like mandrills, have very short tails that almost look like a knob instead of a tail and even if you know the tail/no tail thing you could easily mistake a mandrill monkey for an ape because of that.
Mandrills are the planet’s largest monkeys with males weighing up to 70 pounds. People mistake them for baboons and while they are in the same family, they are much more colorful in the face and rump and are not baboons. At the Dallas zoo we have two adult female mandrills and an unbelievably energetic little baby boy named Obi who is so adorable it’s hard to fathom.
The only bad part about this charming scene is that Obi’s dad died of cancer about a month after he was born. The primate keepers knew he needed a male role model so he could properly learn to be a male mandrill so they reached out to zoos around the country, which is normal operating procedure for zoos nationally and internationally, to try and find a male to come live with us in Dallas, and they found Savuti.
Savuti is a very old mandrill at 22 years old; their life expectancy is around 25. When we get new animals at the zoo, they have to be quarantined for 30 days for medical testing and to get to know their new keeper/trainers.
“I’d love to observe the Mandrills for you, Tami.” I said, “I’ll be here. Will he be in the habitat with Obi and the females?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “he’s coming out of quarantine on Wednesday morning and we want him to be alone to get to know the habitat for a couple days without the added stress of being introduced to his new family. So Obi and the females will stay inside their bedrooms for a couple days while he adjusts.”
“Makes sense.” I said. “Gosh, Savuti has been inside for 30 days, he’ll probably be ecstatic to be outside.”
“Yes,” Tami said, “I’m sure he will!” She just didn’t know how ecstatic.
I arrived on Thursday morning to see Tami and another keeper in front of the mandrill habitat looking worried. As I approached, Tami called out, “You have any monkey shifting mojo? If so, we need it!”
All the primates have inside bedrooms where they sleep at night to protect them from the elements. Shifting means getting the animals to move from their bedrooms out into their habitat and back into their bedrooms again. The Dallas zoo is a positive reinforcement zoo so if the animals do what the keepers want them to do they are rewarded with treats. If the animals don’t do what the keepers want them to do, nothing happens.
“Whad’ya mean?” I responded.
“Oh my gosh,” she said, “We have tried everything and we cannot get Savuti to leave that rock! We let him out yesterday morning and he went right to that rock and hasn’t budged since. He’s so happy to be outside he hasn’t eaten or moved for 24 hours! He was out all night in the freezing temperatures!!”
Tami has been caring for Savuti for the 30 days he’s been in quarantine and she loves him. I know he loves her, too, because when he heard her voice, he looked up from his rock and made eye contact with her and grimaced which is a mandrill’s way of smiling and showing affection. Then when she walked away, he masturbated. When I later told Tami, she was flattered. Zoo people are passionate about animals and a curious crowd.