It is always the smell I remember. Opening the back kitchen door lets loose a wave of gorilla – a thick deep musky odor that seems to envelop me as I unlock the door to let myself in. The aroma rolls out the backdoor, dissipating in the early morning cool. By end of day I will smell like a gorilla, their perfume clinging to my clothes, my hair, my skin.
The gorillas hear me: the click of the huge padlock opening alerts them that I am here and another day has begun. I hear their welcoming vocalizations, a deep rumbling sound, each as distinct as the individual animal that elicits its greeting.
I cross the kitchen to the sliding doors to the back keeper aisle and unlock the first one. When I slide it to the right, Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity, the matriarch of our gorillas is sitting in her dignified imperial way with half a grapefruit husk perched balanced, fitting snug on her sagittal crest – a crown if you will.
She looks at me in such a dead-on serious way – I don’t laugh – but instead turn away to hide my smile. She looks so silly, yet so serious, so sincere, Monty-Pythonish yet at the same time haughty - how does she pull it off?
“Good Morning Colo” I say as she carefully watches me. I have never been one of her favorites. Our initial meeting on my first day of work didn’t go well. Truly I don’t think she has ever forgotten or forgiven me. She tolerates me but I don’t think she’s overly fond of me.
She is one of the most beautiful gorillas I will ever meet. The contours of her face are heart-shaped. Her brown eyes are penetrating with an unusual rim of light gray around each iris. Both hands and feet are long and narrow, her fingers and toes also equally long – in a word they are elegant. Her coal-black skin is flawless and uniform, her hair-coat healthy, thick and a deep black as well. She will gray out as she gets older but she has none of the reddish hair on her head that many of our females have. She reminds me of a wealthy New York City matron from a well-to-do, well-established family with old money that is always elegantly turned out – hair and make-up in place, wearing the perfect Chanel suit.
Leaving the chain link secondary sliding door locked I turn back to the kitchen, start a pot of coffee, soak the eight food bins filled with vegetables and fruit, then grab the vitamin bottles. I open and slide the remaining secondary chain link door to the side to begin my walk down the back aisle distributing vitamins to each of the gorillas.
This walk is to ensure that each gorilla receives his/her vitamin C and multi-vitamin (Flinstone chewables) tablets but more importantly it allows us to check on them. A quick look-see to make sure all are OK. Over the years this walk will reveal much heartache and joy. It will make known that in the depths of the night their lives went on without us, that babies were born, beloved troop members died – a reminder to us that we really are periphery to their complicated lives. We are charged with “keeping” them but that they would be and never can be “ours.”
We are the fortunate few in this world to bear witness to their lives. To every once in while being asked to join in a bout of play/chase - to be accepted as an observer - watching the careful tenderness of a silverback touching his newborn son for the first time; to unexpectedly walking up on a couple of adults in the throes of a tickling bout - when for a moment they stop and look a bit sheepish as if caught in an illicit act, then seem to shrug their shoulders as if to say “Fuck it” and get on with their play. We few hear the sad mourning call after the death of a troop member; its haunting refrain wafting through the Ape House, it’s tender tendrils looking into every nook and cranny as if searching for the lost group member. We are quite simply privileged.