CINCINNATI (AP) – Kamina is about to graduate to being a gorilla, which is certainly peculiar because she was born a gorilla. This type of thing seems to only happen at the Cincinnati Zoo.
For the past 75 days, 17 humans have been holding Kamina around the clock, teaching her how to be a gorilla.
They have worked overnight shifts and early mornings, they have worn hairy vests to give Kamina something to cling too. They have bottle-fed her and crawled on their hands and knees so Kamina could practice abdominal and back riding. They have used low grunting sounds to soothe Kamina and coughing sounds to discourage behaviors.
This is called “gorillafication” and it is working, Kamina will soon be placed with real gorillas, and hopefully never look back.
The one thing all the volunteers, nearly all of whom are zoo workers, want people to know, however, is that this is not fun. This is not for enjoyment, this is to save Kamina and to help a species. This is, repeat, not for fun. Not one little bit. It would all be much more believable if they could just stop smiling for a minute.
“This is an amazing experience, to help Kamina and gorillas,” said Erin Hudepohl, who did most of the overnight shifts. “What it is, is a privilege.”
Kamina, a Western lowland gorilla, was born at the Oklahoma City Zoo on Aug. 16. Her mother, clearly a bit of shrew for a gorilla, rejected her immediately. She turned her back and walked away.
This put Kamina in grave danger. Gorilla babies are just like human babies – they need nurturing and food right away or they will die.
The staff in Oklahoma jumped in but they had a major problem: There was not female gorilla who was a good candidate to “adopt” Kamina.
Fortunately, Cincinnati did have some good eligible females and they had experience.
The Cincinnati Zoo has done this before, with Gladys. She came to Cincinnati in February 2013 from Brownsville, Texas. She was raised by a team of human surrogate “mothers” who nurtured her around the clock. And it worked; Gladys is thriving.
Ron Evans is the curator of primates at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. His sense of responsibility for this animal is palpable.
Evans is the one who most wants to make clear that being a gorilla surrogate is not for people who want to have fun or hold a baby. “I don’t care if they have fun or not, as long as they take care of Kamina,” Evans saidmight . And then he looks at Kamina, 10 pounds of surprisingly strong cuteness and manages, somehow, to maintain his stern demeanor. “We were looking for people who understand protocols and the goals. It’s not for people who want to have fun.”
Evans sometimes acts like a dominant male gorilla, barking loud and banging things in order to frighten Kamina a little bit. This is what Jomo, the 400-pound silverback and undisputed leader of the gorillas at the zoo, will do when she is placed with the group. Evans wants Kamina to not freak out the first time it happens. He also wants to train her to always know where her mother is in times of stress.
The surrogates are always holding Kamina, or she is laying on them, or they are right next to each other. This is what happens in the wild. “A mother gorilla never puts down her baby. She is holding them or they are riding on her,” Evans said. “Humans only put their babies down because we don’t think somebody might snatch them up and eat them.”
In the wild, a baby will ride on her mother’ s back, or stomach, for the first two or three years, according to National Geographic. If a gorilla abandons her baby in the wild, the baby dies.
But that will not happen here. It looks like Kamina will be “adopted” by Samantha, a proven commodity as a gorilla mother. Samantha was born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1970. Since then, she has had five daughters and one son. “Samantha is historically our best mother,” Evans said. “She is a super mom.”
Since arriving at the zoo in September, Kamina has seen the other gorillas, and they have be able to see her, too. But there has been almost no interaction. Kamina, when not out in the yard, however, is typically placed in the area right next to Samantha. In that room, there is a “howdy mesh” which allows the two gorillas to see and smell each other. From the beginning, Samantha has been keenly interested in Kamina. She has even started sticking a finger through the mesh, and Kamina has started holding it.
So the plan now is to place Kamina with Samantha, although nothing will be certain until that happens. And the timing remains fluid. The placement could happen in the next couple of days, but certainly within the next couple of weeks, ideally. Then they will spend some time alone.
The ideal time for placement of an infant gorilla with an “adoptive” mother is between 3 and 5 months. At that age, the gorilla is strong enough to walk to handlers to receive bottle milk – as Samantha would not be lactating, but would not have spent so much time with humans that she would not be able to adapt to a gorilla family.
Evans said one thing is clear: The gorillas will treat Kamina like a gorilla. That can mean some rough play and loud noises. Kamina will need to be able to handle the play of her peers and know to stay close to her mother. Which is one of the reasons all of the surrogates stay vigilant about not coddling Kamina.
“Kamina is not our baby. Kamina is not our pet. Kamina is a gorilla,” Evans said, with his best stern face. “They (the gorillas) are not going to coddle her. They are going to treat her like a gorilla.”
Which is why these women, and they are all women other than Evans, have worked so hard. Being a human surrogate is difficult and at the end of an eight-hour shift, your body aches from all the bending over and picking up having a gorilla on your back. The vests are hot and hairy, and they stink. Kamina pees on her holders a lot, but the vests are worn so Kamina will not be surprised the first time she grabs on to Samantha.
But nobody is complaining. Jackie Newsom is a regular holder and calls it almost meditative. She spends her time with Kamina watching the other gorilla mothers and trying to mimic their behavior. She has loved every minute of it, but is already excited about the ending. “It’s been a real honor to be part of this,” Newsom said. “It’s going to be really cool when I see her with a gorilla. I’ll know I have done my job.”
It has been an extraordinary amount of work for a gorilla from Oklahoma City. Nearly all of the surrogates are zoo employees, so they are on the clock for their time, but other people on staff have had to pick up a lot of slack. Primate keepers Eric High, Benny Smith and Thomas Farley have had to do an extraordinary amount of work to keep things going in the primate house.
But the species is critically endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and that makes it all worthwhile. And it even makes Evans smile.
“You would have to be pretty callous if you did not enjoy this,” Evans said. “It is a privilege to help Kamina and her species.”
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