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The Gorilla Species Survival Plan

Hey there, everyone! My name is Shay and I’m one of the new keepers in our Primate Department, specifically in the gorilla area. While I’ve only been here at Zoo Atlanta for a few months, I have about four years of experience working with gorillas. And I have to say, getting used to all the individuals here at Zoo Atlanta has been a bit of a fun challenge – there are 21 of them, after all! There’s certainly a lot of new names and faces to learn!

Luckily I was able to get a head start on some of the names and family trees before I moved here because I actually worked with a couple of Zoo Atlanta-born gorillas at my last organization. Longtime Zoo guests may remember hearing about Kazi and Macy B. moving to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, in April of 2015. I was one of the gorilla keepers at that zoo, and I was able to help the two of them get acclimated to their new home and troop. Macy B. and Kazi settled in pretty quickly and easily won the hearts of the entire department with their goofy antics and sweet personalities. I adored working with them! Now that I’m here at Zoo Atlanta where they were born and raised, it has been a lot of fun finding the various physical and personality traits that they share with their large families. For example, Macy B. looks just like her mother, Kudzoo — who in turn looks a lot like her mother, Choomba (that whole family line shares the same nose shape)! And Kazi’s twin brother Kali is just as playful and spunky as she is! It’s made my transition to learning all of the gorillas here at the Zoo just a little bit easier since I was already familiar with some of the family members.

You may be wondering why Kazi and Macy B. had to move away to another zoo in the first place. Well, it was all due to a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Gorilla Species Survival Plan®, of course!

So … What does that mean? Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything!

AZA is the organization that accredits zoos and aquariums across the country and makes sure they are all operating under their high standards and expectations for excellent animal care. There are about 230 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States, which is less than 10 percent of the facilities that exhibit wild animals which are recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s a rigorous process to meet and maintain AZA standards, so anytime you see a facility (like Zoo Atlanta!) that is accredited by AZA, you know that they are top-notch in animal care!

The SSP is a program run through AZA whose job is to manage the animal populations within zoos to ensure that zoological populations remain genetically diverse and sustainable. This is especially important since almost all zoo animals are bred in zoo settings instead of being removed from the wild, so it’s important to maintain genetic variety in the zoological populations. It’s the job of the SSPs to make sure that zoos as a whole are able to maintain an appropriate population size and that we don’t have certain genetics being over-represented. The SSP recommends certain individuals who are suitable for breeding based on their genetic histories and how their potential offspring can benefit the population. Think of it almost like a zoo-wide dating service for the animals that ensures the survival of the species!

There is a lot that goes into this process – someone maintains the ‘”studbook,” which keeps track of every individual animal of that species including their family/genetic history and how that relates to the current population. In addition to all the record-keeping, the studbook keeper also has to know how to mathematically manage the population to maximize species sustainability. The whole process is really complicated! There are over 500 SSPs in the country (each SSP focuses on one species) all working their hardest to make sure our zoological populations remain healthy and viable. The Gorilla SSP has determined (using lots and lots of math that goes way over my head) that a healthy, sustainable zoo population in the U.S. is 350 individuals. Considering there are approximately 355 gorillas across 51 facilities in the country, we are doing pretty well at maintaining a healthy population!

Now, going back to our earlier point on moving gorillas from zoo to zoo, you can hopefully understand a little bit about why the SSP might recommend certain individuals to relocate to a different facility. These aren’t decisions that are made casually – a lot of gorilla experts gather every year to discuss how to manage the current population, which individuals are recommended to breed based on their current genetic representation in the population, which facilities can accommodate new gorillas, and the best way to organize those transfers between zoos. It’s a very long, thorough process!

Animal transfers between different zoos due to SSP recommendations are very common in the zoo world. And while it can be sad for us keepers to say goodbye to the animals we’ve taken care of, we all understand the importance of the move. Our animals are going off on a new adventure to aid in the survival of their species, and that’s a pretty incredible thing to be a part of if you ask me!

I know I just threw a lot of information at you, and while I hope you learned something new and found it interesting, I know it can still be a little confusing. If you have questions, come find me at one of our Gorilla Keeper Talks next time you’re visiting the Zoo! I’d love to chat with you and answer any questions about gorillas and SSPs that you have! Talk to you soon!
Shay Workman
Keeper II, Primates

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