Building Empathy in Children through Gorilla Enrichment

If you were to design an enrichment item for a gorilla – something that provides mental stimulation and encourages natural behaviors – what would you create? Maybe a puzzle feeder with a special treat inside? A structure so gorillas can practice climbing? As part of GRACE’s conservation education program, children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo worked together to design enrichment for the gorillas at GRACE as part of a new project aimed at building empathy for gorillas and other animals.

GRACE leads six youth conservation clubs that help kids build leadership skills and take local action for conservation. In a series of visits, GRACE educators and gorilla caregivers met with club members to teach them about gorillas and how the GRACE team cares for gorillas who have lost their families due to poaching.

The curriculum emphasized taking the perspective of gorillas to build empathy. Children learned about the special bond between gorilla mothers and their offspring, including how important it is that gorillas remain in the wild with their families. This provided an opportunity to compare the needs of gorillas and people. For example, baby gorillas and human infants depend on their mothers for milk, protection and care. They learn from their family group, they play, and they discover skills needed in adulthood. As a group, the clubs concluded that, in many ways, gorillas are a lot like us.

GRACE caregivers then explained that caring for gorilla orphans at GRACE requires providing them with food, a clean living space, health care, social interaction with other gorillas, and mental stimulation. Just like children in school, it is important for gorillas to learn and be challenged. Gorillas at GRACE are given special puzzle feeders or hidden food items to encourage problem solving and new foraging behaviors. The GRACE gorillas also spend time in the forest each day. This natural and expansive habitat is their best form of enrichment as it allows gorillas to explore and learn as they would in the wild.

To practice being gorilla caregivers and scientists, club members then watched videos of gorilla behaviors. Using a simplified behavior chart, or ethogram, the children collected data on how a gorilla spends its day. They observed behaviors such as resting, moving, playing, and eating. These behaviors led to a more in-depth discussion on what types of enrichment items could be offered to the GRACE gorillas.

Ultimately, the children chose food-based enrichment, and worked in groups to design a foraging basket for the gorillas. They presented their designs to the club, and everyone voted on the winning design. They then made sample baskets. Unfortunately, GRACE is still off-limits to visitors due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the region, so the children could not deliver the baskets to the gorillas in person. Instead, the GRACE care team used these models to create baskets at GRACE then hid food items inside for the gorillas. The educators then videoed the gorillas finding and opening their baskets. The club members gathered to watch these videos and were delighted to see the gorillas enjoying the foraging baskets they designed! Everyone laughed when the caregivers explained that after the baskets were emptied, one gorilla even brought them back from the forest, as if asking for another round of food! The baskets will be re-used and re-made as needed by the care team as a fun way to offer the gorillas variety in their foraging.

Watch the conservation club members working on the foraging baskets and the GRACE gorillas enjoying them:

In the last meeting to be held in September 2019, children will discuss the differences between surviving and thriving as they learn the meaning of empathy. Children will discover that the GRACE gorillas are thriving because GRACE provides excellent care for them daily. And their enrichment items added to this care! However, all animals, including domestic animals like goats and guinea pigs, can and should thrive too. Giving domestic animals enrichment items, proper care and nutrition, and a clean environment allows them to grow up healthy and strong. In the end, our goal is for children to expand their view of what it means to care for and respect all living things. By teaching empathy through conservation, GRACE continues to uphold the motto “a future for gorillas, built on community.”

This project was funded by a generous grant from the Columbus Zoo, and done in partnership with the Kasiisi Project in Uganda, which is conducting a similar project with their youth Wildlife Clubs. The Wildlife Clubs will make enrichment items for chimpanzees at Ngamba Island Sanctuary in Uganda. In May 2019, the GRACE team visited The Kasiisi Project to exchange ideas and lessons learned with staff members. Outcomes of the gorilla enrichment program will be evaluated at the end of 2019, and in the near future we aim to expand the program to include building empathy for domestic animals. We want to thank GRACE’s Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group and Selina Niblett for initial ideas about types of enrichment and our Education Advisory Group for guidance with curriculum and evaluations.

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About GRACE: Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is the world’s only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas. The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers have dropped by nearly 80% in the past 20 years due to heavy poaching. They are considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world with only 3,800 remaining. GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can return to the wild. At GRACE the gorillas live in a single gorilla group that functions as a surrogate family and spend their days in 39 acres of forest. GRACE also partners with local communities on education and conservation initiatives to protect a critical population of wild gorillas living in Tayna Nature Reserve. For more about GRACE, visit: www.gracegorillas.org

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Female

Born: 2006 (estimated) Rescued: 2006

Tumaini means “hope” in Kiswahili. Rescued from poachers near Goma in 2006, Tumaini was very young, between three and six months old, and in poor health. Tumaini is a peaceful and very social member of the group at GRACE, but can become protective of her food, especially her favorite – wild bananas. Tumaini seems to want to be the most dominant gorilla in her age group and likes to display often to show off. She is shorter than other gorillas her size, which may be a result of stunted growth from malnutrition experienced at an early age.

Male

Born: 2010 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

Shamavu was carried around for weeks in a small backpack while his captors searched for a potential buyer. Once confiscated, he received medical attention in Virunga National Park and then was transferred by plane to GRACE. Shamavu is the youngest male in the group of 14 gorillas at GRACE. He’s full of restless energy with an inexhaustible eagerness to play. He and male Lubutu are best pals and they’re often seen wrestling and chasing each other up trees, around stumps and through their night quarters. Shamavu boasts thick dark hair and striking eyes. Watch Shamavu’s trip to GRACE.

Female

Born: 2002 (estimated) Rescued: 2005

Confiscated near Goma in eastern DR Congo, Serufuli was named after a North Kivu, DR Congo governor. She was between two and three years of age when she was rescued. Serufuli is a beautiful gorilla that is described by staff as kind. She is one of the quieter gorillas and rarely causes a stir, but she has close friendships with both of the highest-ranking females at GRACE — Pinga and Mapendo — and can influence who is seen as the dominant female by the group.

Female

Born: 2003 (estimated) Rescued: 2005

From the moment Pinga was rescued from poachers, her rescuers knew that she was a gorilla destined to be in charge! Pinga has always been very “wild-like” in that she is not human-oriented — a promising quality that will make her a strong candidate for reintroduction. Pinga is the oldest female at GRACE and led the group for several years before male Kighoma came of age. She is still one of the highest-ranking females in the group, but now jockeys for the alpha female role with Mapendo. Pinga has been the loving surrogate mother to almost every orphan gorilla at GRACE.

Female

Born: 2009 (estimated) Rescued: 2010

When Ndjingala was barely one year old, she was rescued from captors who were trying to sell her illegally. She was in bad shape when she was found. Her captors had tied her using a rope around her waist, which had worn deep cuts into her hips – plus she was sick. Fortunately, Ndjingala’s health slowly improved. Ndjingala loves to play and climb trees, and has a bit of a goofy side. She has started to be interested in mothering younger gorillas and often carries them around on her back.

 

Female

Born: 2010 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

Muyisa was rescued in 2011 on the border of Rwanda and DR Congo. She was taken into Rwanda, and then due to insecurity could not return to her home in DR Congo for three years. During this time, she lived alone with only a human caregiver and she unfortunately suffered from stress and pulled out much of the hair on her head as a result. Remarkably, when Muyisa met the group at GRACE, the gorillas physically embraced her and she integrated seamlessly into the group. Today, she is a confident young female who loves playing with gorillas her age.

Female

Born: 2004 (estimated) Rescued: 2007

Mapendo, whose name means “great love” in Kiswahili, was about three years old when she was confiscated from poachers in December of 2007. She is a tough girl, and very smart. She occasionally uses tools, including branches which she uses to rake in food out of her reach when her caregivers are not looking! Mapendo is one of the highest-ranking females in the GRACE group, jockeying for the role of alpha female with Pinga.

Female

Born: 2015 (estimated) Rescued: 2016

Lulingu is the youngest gorilla at GRACE, and is really adorable. All of the older females love Lulingu and try to carry her whenever her surrogate mother Pinga will let them. The GRACE caregivers think Lulingu (sometimes called “Luli”) is the perfect little gorilla because she always takes her food and medicine and loves the forest. She is adventurous and loves to climb high in trees. Lulingu has always had an independent nature — on her first day in the forest, she immediately climbed a tree and made her own nest! See her full story here.

Male

Born: 2009 (estimated) Rescued: 2011

When Lubutu was about one and a half, he was rescued by the wildlife authority from four people illegally trying to sell him. He was extremely sick at the time from eating human foods. Despite his rough start, Lubutu adapted well to life at GRACE. Lubutu is now healthy and happy. He is silly and gentle and has endeared himself to every person who has met him. Lubutu is growing up and starting to show more silverback-like behavior, but he still loves to play — especially chasing and wrestling games with his best friend Shamavu!

Male

Born: 2006 (estimated) Rescued: 2008

Kighoma was held captive in near the Tayna Nature Reserve in eastern DR Congo by a militia group. Such groups often keep young gorillas and other wildlife as mascots. He was rescued by a man named Kighoma, the brother of a local king, so that is how he got his name.Kighoma is the oldest of the males at GRACE and is currently the alpha male. He is a gentle leader, always looking out for the safety of the other gorillas in the group.

Female

Born: 2012 (estimated) Rescued: 2014

Kalonge was confiscated by the Congolese wildlife authority in 2014 after villagers discovered her caught in a snare. Today, she is one of the boldest members of the GRACE group. She is an energetic, rough-and-tumble gorilla who likes to play and have her own way. Kalonge can be a trouble-maker with high-ranking females like Pinga, because she wants to be in charge! Despite her leadership aspirations, little Kalonge has many friends and loves to play all day every day!

Female

Born: 2003 (estimated) Rescued: 2004

Itebero was only about one-and-a-half years old when she was confiscated from poachers. She was named after the village in eastern DR Congo where she was rescued. Itebero is considered the smartest gorilla at GRACE by caregivers. She uses tools such as branches to help her access food out of her reach. She even has used the advanced “hammer-and-anvil” technique of cracking palm nuts to get to the oil inside, a method previously thought to be restricted to chimpanzees who are known for their tool-using abilities. Itebero’s tool use even made headlines!

Female

Born: 2007 (estimated) Rescued: 2009

On the day she was rescued, Amani was found stuffed into a plastic bag and was very dehydrated. She had a bullet lodged in her right leg as a result of the poaching incident that killed her family. While she is still a little slow and walks with a limp, she has healed well. Many of the GRACE caregivers believe that Amani is the most beautiful gorilla at GRACE because of her pretty face and sweet personality. She loves to play with the younger gorillas and is a peacemaker after conflicts within the group.

Female

Born: 2011 (estimated) Rescued: 2012

Isangi’s family was killed by poachers when she was around 9 months old. Isangi is tough young gorilla for surviving the ordeal that took her from her family group. She walks around almost as if she is the dominant female, like nothing can harm her. She is quite mischievous, and really loves her food. She tries to sneak tasty treats from the caregiver’s food buckets, and will even try and steal food from other gorillas.p.