In response to the death of a gorilla.

I have been struggling, as I know many people have with what occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo two weeks ago. There have been recriminations, criticisms, some judgmental and cruel comments directed at just about everyone. But that is not what this is about – this is about a few things I’d like people to know about gorillas.

They each have a unique personality.

They have individual physical characteristics – no two look alike.

They form friendships, alliances, – interpret it any way you want – they simply prefer the company of some over others.

They nurture and protect their children.

Some have a wicked good sense of humor.

They can become stressed and frightened – they experience panic.

They need their personal space just as we do.

Young gorillas love to be tickled.

They mourn their dead.

All gorillas laugh.

They are sentient beings.

And some possess a dignity beyond most people I have encountered on this earth.

I have witnessed the gentleness of a silverback gorilla as he reached out his huge index finger to stroke the head of his newly born infant.

I have seen a set of juvenile twins tease and bully an infant (because they are pre-teens and that’s what they do). But later on, one of the twins responded to the pitiful calls of that same infant when he could not figure out how to navigate a doorway. I watched as the twin came back outside, place his arm around the infant, walk him down the transfer chute, lift up the heavy door-flap allowing the infant to scoot back into the building, back to his family.

I have seen a male gorilla raise his 14–month-old son after the death of his mate, the mother of his son. I witnessed that same silverback lean against the back door of his cage peering down the back aisle - calling to his dead mate for several days, his bewildered young son leaning against the comforting bulk of his father.

I have seen such tender thoroughness when a mother gorilla examines her infant - checking toes, fingers, cleaning eyes and ears.

I have seen a female gorilla that had not seen her original keeper for years, run at breakneck speed toward that gentleman’s voice as he called her name in his soft southern accent. She then allowed him to reach through the mesh to touch her infant who was riding on her back – something she had never allowed us, her (then) current keepers to do – all the while rumbling happily away to her former keeper.

I have seen an adult male gorilla allow us to continue year after year to add infants and juveniles – unrelated to him – to his troop thus creating the largest age-diversified group of gorillas my zoo ever had. He was the ultimate adoptive father.

I have been moved to tears to see a 4-year-old youngster bend over to peer into the unseeing eyes of his dead father while eliciting a mournful hoot vocalization – a sound that haunts me to this day.

I have seen a first-time mother flail her hands and arms up and down, up and down in what I can only term delight, as her infant slept on her chest.

I have seen females who were labeled non-social readily adopt infants, protect them, teach them acceptable social norms and help them traverse the shared behaviors needed to be an accepted member of a gorilla troop.

I was once a gorilla keeper. I had the privilege of witnessing their daily lives. I want the world to know that they are not one-dimensional but are complicated social beings - deserving of our respect, our wonder and our sadness at their passing – whatever the circumstance.

Beth Armstrong

Former gorilla keeper/head keeper at The Columbus Zoo

1982-1995


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