By Beth Schaefer, Curator of Primates and Carnivores at the Houston Zoo
After arriving at GRACE, Rachel Daneault (Primate Zoological Manager, Disney’s Animal Kingdom) and I were eager to set up the workshop we had prepared for the GRACE gorilla care staff covering natural history, safety, and management strategies. The hope was to use this information to help the staff work toward a holistic management plan that minimizes human impact on the gorillas while encouraging the gorillas to make their own decisions–a skill that is critical, if they are to successfully return to the wild.
GRACE first received orphaned gorillas in 2010, and there are currently 14 individuals there. The GRACE staff was already doing a terrific job caring for these animals. We were there to share our expertise in managing primates in captivity to help them better integrate knowledge about gorilla behavior into their management practices.
As an example of how behavioral knowledge can inform management, consider gorilla spacing tendencies. Gorilla groups spend much of their day feeding. In the wild, group members spread out and choose who they want be near. During feeding, spacing is especially important. If gorillas manage to feed near friends, everyone usually eats in peace and without getting in each other’s way. At GRACE, gorillas do not obviously have the same spacing options as their wild counterparts, but they are still given the opportunity to choose their feeding area and dining partners. Because gorillas decide their feeding arrangements, meal times are generally peaceful and stress free for everyone.
A major goal for our visit was to work with the GRACE caregivers to come up with a plan to manage the gorilla group during their health checks that are scheduled in a few months. It is critical that GRACE has up to date health information on the gorillas to help make decisions about each individual’s rehabilitation and reintroduction plans. It will take three to four days to perform medical examinations on all the gorillas. Gorillas will need to be separated from the group for short periods of time, so it is therefore important to take their social preferences into account to be sure they are as comfortable as possible with this arrangement. And just like the comfort that the nearness of friends brings during feeding time, it will help the gorillas to see the face of their best buddy nearby after their exam. We worked with the caregivers to learn about the different social relationships within the GRACE gorilla group then used this information to assign the order in which gorillas will undergo health checks.
The GRACE staff was amazing to work with. For nine days in a row the caregivers not only had their normal routine to complete, but they spent three hours every day with us in a classroom type setting. They even made the trek up the mountain to GRACE on their days off! We weren’t sure how much of an impact the language barrier would have on completing the workshop but, despite everything going through a French translator, we made it through our entire syllabus. We were so impressed by the staff’s dedication and were truly inspired by all of them.
For many of us in the zoo field, being able to help the wild cousins of the animals we care for and love is a very rare and special opportunity. For me, it was hugely rewarding to transfer the knowledge and skills gained during my years in captive animal management to the caregivers at GRACE. They can now use those tools to help prepare the GRACE gorillas to return to the wild. That is a dream come true for me, and certainly the highlight of my career!
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