Training the troop: Riverbanks keepers preparing all gorillas for birth
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - We are just seven weeks away from Riverbanks Zoo welcoming its first baby gorilla in the zoo's history.
As Macy, the future mom, continues to have her weekly check-ups, she's not the only one at gorilla basecamp preparing for the baby's arrival.
Four of the five gorillas at Riverbanks were brought to the zoo in April of 2015 to form a family troop in anticipation of this event.
From mom and dad, to aunt and big sister, each gorilla will take on a role that will change the family dynamic. Keepers have worked with the troop for nearly two years to get the gorillas ready to have an infant at basecamp.
"She's going to show off some of the maternal training that we have done with all of the gorillas," said Emily Guertin, senior keeper of the gorilla at Riverbanks. Guertin talked us through interactions between Cenzoo, the father-to-be, and his keeper.
"It's a series of steps that we have to train," said Guertin, as Cenzoo picked up a large doughnut and followed his trainer's commands. "First we had to introduce the laser pointer and then kind of circles the laser and the object, and that's the queue for him to pick up an item and then now he is presenting it to the mesh. So they're trained to pick any item that we want in the bedroom and present it to the mesh."
That doughnut he's holding is supposed to simulate the future infant.
"In theory, say it's a baby gorilla, and we need to check the respiratory rate," said Guertin. "We should be able to point to the baby have them bring the baby up to the mesh and present it so that we can get a visual assessment of the baby."
Cenzoo does the task like a champ. Of the five gorillas at Riverbanks, 21-year-old Cenzoo is the leader of the troop: natural protector who was cautious of our cameras.
"He's actually showing off a little bit of his personality," said Guertin. "He's a little bit on the cautious side, more of a serious gorilla. He's the leader of the family. He needs to be able to protect his family so any situation that might be a little different he likes to observe and make sure it's safe."
And then there's the not-so-serious Kazi. Our cameras caught her spinning and rolling around behind her pregnant half-sister Macy.
"So that's exactly what Kazi is known for!" said Guertin.
Kazi, short for Kamikaze, has a personality that's larger than life. Keepers believe the 11-year-old may end up acting as big sister or playmate to the infant.
"Kazi is a little ornery personality," said John Davis, Curator of Mammals at Riverbanks Zoo. "She's always thinking about what's next. Sometimes it's ornery and sometimes it's mischievous but she's really a caring individual."
She's also really smart. She showed off her training by demonstrating a move called trade the baby, which would get the infant to keepers if necessary.
"If something were to happen with the baby where it's not nursing or it's looking weak we are hoping that all of the gorillas will potentially trade the baby. There's a door right here. We can just open the flap and get the baby out if we need to," Guertin added, pointing to a special compartment in the gorilla's barn.
The gorillas are also training with keepers to allow them bottle feed the baby from behind the mesh. That's what 22-year-old Acacia practiced with her keeper during training.
"She came from North Carolina," said Guertin. "She actually helped raise two infants at the North Carolina Zoo, so she was brought in with this troop because she has that maternal experience, and I think she will be a great help to Macy, who will be a first time mom."
You can pick Acacia apart from the other females because of her sagittal crest.
"You can kind of see that little hump on the back of her head. Hers is more visual," said Guertin.
She also has a sassy personality on and off exhibit.
"She's pretty sassy, independent and dominant. But she's a great member to have," said Davis. "She's a protector, and I think if there's any trouble she's going to be always looking out for the baby."
Of course, Macy will have major responsibilities, but keepers say she is ready. In her training they told us this calm future-mom also likes to have fun.
"She does like to drum on items, she's kind of known for her musical abilities," said Guertin right before Macy mimicked her trainer and gave us a drum roll!
Finally, we can't forget Patrick. The 390-pound bachelor gorilla is the largest at the zoo. He's not part of the family troop, but is a much loved member of Riverbanks.
"He's definitely one of our favorite guys here, but don't tell the other gorillas," said one of Patrick's keepers.
Keepers say Patrick's social skills can sometimes send the wrong signal to other gorillas, so he's got a separate routine from the troop. But the baby will be a part of his life, too.
"He'll get to observe, and I think it will be enriching for him," said Guertin. "We will continue to find ways for socialization for Patrick and hopefully to other gorillas one day."
But until then, Patrick and the family troop are looking ahead to another day: a day that will bring a sixth member to their squad and history to Riverbanks.
In our first edition of Beyond the Banks we shared how the birth of the infant is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan. John Davis says right now there are 355 gorillas managed in 51 AZA zoos. Davis said they can't go to Africa and get more Western Lowland gorillas which is why the process of raising a healthy gorilla is so vital for this critically endangered species.
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