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Care for geriatric gorillas

Providing exceptional care for geriatric gorillas

Hello everyone, my name is Allie, and I am a member of the Gorilla Care Team at Zoo Atlanta! Ever wonder what it takes to care for our geriatric gorillas? Well, buckle up and get ready to learn! Today I’m going to teach you all about how we modify our normal care to fit the needs of our older gorillas. Our team cares for 18 gorillas of all ages, from 2-year-old Floyd to 46-year-old Machi. Zoo Atlanta has a long-standing history of caring for geriatric gorillas, and we are always trying to find new ways to improve their overall well-being. As I am sure most of you know by now, we unfortunately lost our two oldest gorillas in January, Ozzie and Choomba. Ozzie was the oldest male gorilla on record at 61, and Choomba was the fourth oldest female in the world at 59. As their care team, we hope that the specialized care we provided for those two legends aided in their incredible longevity.

In human care, the median life expectancy for female gorillas is 37 years and 33 years for males. However, gorillas in accredited zoos have been known to live well into their 40s and even early 50s. Currently, our “geriatric” troop (troop = group of gorillas) consists of two females: Machi, who as I mentioned earlier is 46, and 37-year-old Kuchi. A gorilla is not technically considered geriatric until 40 years old, so Kuchi has a few more years until she achieves that golden title. As our gorillas age, there are challenges that can also arise. To face these challenges, we must make the necessary accommodations for each individual to ensure optimal health and minimal stress. This includes altering husbandry care, environment, and enrichment.

Husbandry care includes every service we provide to the gorillas daily. This entails following temperature guidelines (making sure it is warm enough for the gorillas to go out onto habitat), providing extra fluids (aids in hydration and fecal production), partaking in quality-of-life meetings for tracking subjective well-being (always looking for ways to improve their overall care), and keeper interaction (provides stimulation and visual consistency of normal behavior). With special treatment and close monitoring, we deliver exceptional care to our advanced age gorillas.

The environmental aspect of animal care is a little different. As a team, we offer multiple furniture items and modifications to the gorillas’ indoor and habitat space to ease their mobility. We can alter structures such as adding extra steps or ramps, lowering hammocks and shelves, and adding hand holds to help maneuver and provide stability. In addition, we provide large and fluffy hay or wood wool piles for nesting to relieve age-related discomfort. Think about it this way: If you went camping, would you rather sleep on the ground or on a blow-up air mattress? The ground is not a terrible option, but you will probably wake up with stiff joints in the morning. Do you remember the orthopedic Bully Bed that was graciously donated for Ozzie? That was his favorite place to sleep in the habitat. All in all, we try to always ensure that our gorillas, especially our geriatric individuals, are always comfortable.

Finally, we can accommodate our elderly gorillas in an enriching sense. Enrichment is a way we stimulate our animals both mentally and physically with a focus of eliciting natural behaviors. In other words, enrichment is like a crossword puzzle for gorillas! Enrichment, for our gorillas, typically includes manual and physical dexterity in addition to complexity. As gorillas age, we must adjust some of our enrichment opportunities to provide a safer and simpler way to achieve this same level of physiological and mental stimulation. This may take the form of hanging novel food items at a lower level, cutting the diet in larger pieces, and engaging in training sessions where care team members ask for “easier” behaviors. Additionally, training is all voluntary and positive reinforcement-based. Kuchi, our younger geriatric female, is particularly skilled in “blood draw” preventative training. This behavior allows our Animal Care and Veterinary Teams to monitor and track overall health of the gorillas.

Overall, the Gorilla and Veterinary Teams take great pride in our geriatric care and are always searching for ways to make the lives of our animals easier and more fulfilling. Next time you visit us, be sure to stop by Habitat 2 and say hi to Machi and Kuchi. Thank you for hanging out with me and learning all things geriatric! Did you hear about the gorilla who loved listening to classical music? He was a Silverbach. Cheers!

Allie C.
Keeper I, Primates

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