The DR Congo team stands with a banner for Animal Sanctuary Caregivers Day 2022.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a Gorilla Caregiver?

One word that comes to mind for team GRACE is dedication. Caring for 14 growing gorillas is no small feat. In fact, it requires an entire team working day and night all year long!

Every June, in partnership with Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), GRACE recognizes Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day. Today, we’re celebrating by sharing a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to be a GRACE Gorilla Caregiver.

Experts in Gorilla Care

GRACE’s Gorilla Caregivers are award-winning and internationally recognized for their commitment to excellence in animal care and welfare. Other great ape sanctuaries have even called upon GRACE caregivers for help with difficult animal cases.

Their emergency interventions have even saved gorilla lives.

Side by side photos of Amani during her illness and after.

In 2018, female Amani began losing weight quickly. Despite health assessments and tests, the illness could not be identified. Multiple times per day, the caregivers prepared a variety of foods for Amani including vegetation, fruits, nutritional biscuits, and even homemade soups. She is a very picky eater in general but was worse than usual. And she is also very smart so could instantly detect any medicine the caregivers tried to sneak into her food! The caregivers spent hours each day coaxing Amani to eat and take her medicine – eventually succeeding. This intensive support is what saved Amani’s life.

Over 10 Years of Gorilla Care Experience

Before joining GRACE, only a few of our Gorilla Caregivers had ever seen a gorilla.

In GRACE’s early days, gorilla experts from U.S. zoos were brought in to train staff. They shared their expertise in animal care, facility maintenance, conservation education, and more. Since that initial phase, the DR Congo team has independently designed and built a second gorilla night house and forest habitat. They also built the first quarantine facility, to care for rescued gorillas upon arrival.

Today, the daily work of operating a sanctuary for 14 gorillas – along with GRACE’s conservation education and community engagement efforts – are all run by Congolese staff. The Gorilla Caregiver team remains connected to expert animal care advisors for remote support. But, they now manage training, enrichment, gorilla group dynamics, and monitor gorilla health each day.

The team has shown incredible dedication over the years to become the recognized gorilla experts they are today.

Gorilla Caregivers: A Day in the Life

Here’s a look at just one day in the life of a Gorilla Caregiver.

A landscape view showing the forest habitat fence running through thick vegetation.

Gorilla caregivers must walk the perimeter of the forest habitat before the gorillas enter each day.

  • [6:00] Mornings are cold at GRACE. Before the sun comes up, GRACE’s Gorilla Caregivers arrive at the sanctuary. They must shower and change into uniforms (to reduce risk of disease transmission). Then they report for a morning meeting with the management team.
  • [6:45] GRACE Caregivers bring food to the 14 gorillas in their night house for morning feeding. The gorillas will forage for most of their diet in the forest habitat, but we supplement to ensure proper nutrition. Caregivers collect observation data on each of the gorillas, including how much each one eats, and who they are sitting close to during this time.
  • [Early morning] After the gorillas have their breakfast, they enter into the mixing yard – an outdoor area between the night house and forest habitat. GRACE Caregivers begin cleaning the night house. They also walk the perimeter and check the fence of the forest habitat to ensure everything is in working order before gorillas enter.
A gorilla caregiver pulls a metal door open, to allow gorillas to enter a tunnel leading from the mixing yard to the forest habitat.

A caregiver opens the door to allow the gorillas to leave the mixing yard and enter the 24-acre forest habitat, where they will forage, play, and rest during the day.

  • [Before 8:30] Gorilla Caregivers open the shift gate and watch as all 14 gorillas enter the forest habitat, led by silverback male Kighoma. The team continues to collect data on group dynamics and interactions.
  • [Mid-morning] Once the gorillas are in the forest habitat, Caregivers divide and conquer to complete a variety of tasks. Some walk the perimeter of the forest and climb tall watch towers to ensure the safety of the gorillas. Others continue cleaning or gather vegetation from the GRACE farm to feed the gorillas later in the day.
A partial view of an observation tower outside of the perimeter fence.

Gorilla Caregivers divide and conquer tasks including cleaning and preparing food. Some climb the observation towers around the perimeter of the habitat to monitor the gorillas (gorillas can be hard to see in the dense vegetation).

  • [Noon] Caregivers use a bell to call the gorilla group back into both the mixing yard and night house for lunch. GRACE staff must monitor the forest habitat at all times while the gorillas are inside, so this break gives Caregivers time to take lunch, too.
  • [Afternoon] Gorillas head back into the forest for the afternoon. Foraging, eating, playing, and resting are high on the gorillas’ priority list.

While Gorilla Caregivers and staff work, the gorillas are free to snooze the afternoon away…

  • [17:00] Gorillas head back into a freshly cleaned and sanitized night house for the evening. Here, the gorillas will build nests for the night with materials provided by their Caregivers. They will sleep here overnight for safety and protection.
  • At the end of the day, most Caregivers return home to their families in Katoyo and Kasugho after getting washed and changing out of their uniforms. A small crew remains, with Caregivers taking turns on a rotating basis, to watch the gorillas overnight.

These dedicated caregivers will be back tomorrow, each showing the same determination and care for these gorillas that they have shown the past 10 years. In fact, their commitment is paving the way for gorilla conservation efforts in DR Congo.

Heroes for Gorillas

We’ve come a long way since GRACE was built in 2008. The transformation from never having seen a gorilla to excellence in gorilla sanctuary care results from the deep commitment and incredible work ethic of the team.

When asked about their commitment to caring for gorillas, GRACE DRC Director Jackson Kabuyaya Mbeke put it best.

“The team does [their work] quietly, humbly, and without complaint. They are proud of their work and 100% dedicated. Really, they are true heroes.” – Jackson Mbeke

Please join us in thanking these Gorilla Caregiver heroes and all of our incredible DR Congo staff on this very special Animal Sanctuary Caregiver Day!

Help GRACE Gorillas

About GRACE

Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the U.S. that operates the world’s only sanctuary for Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorillas in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern DRC. Their numbers have dropped by nearly 80% in the past 20 years due to heavy poaching. They are one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world with only 3,800 individuals remaining in the wild.

GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can one day 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 protected forest habitats. GRACE also leads field research and 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 gracegorillas.org.