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Preparing for a baby gorilla

Hey friends! I hope you are all doing well and thriving. My name is Allie, and I am a gorilla caretaker. Have you ever thought about what it takes to prepare for a new gorilla baby? Shalia (21), our pregnant female in Willie B., Jr.’s group, has undergone multiple steps to prepare for her new baby. 

As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited organization, we participate in a managed program called the Species Survival Plan®, or SSP. This program allows us to maintain the genetic diversity of the animals we have in zoos across North America. All 24 of the gorillas born at Zoo Atlanta have been reared in families by their mothers or by a gorilla surrogate. Shalia’s baby will be the 25th baby to be born here and will be Willie B., Jr.’s first offspring!

Females Shalia and Kambera (24) arrived at Zoo Atlanta on an SSP breeding recommendation, while our female Amari (12) was chosen to help fill out the group to a proper male to female ratio. Although Shalia and Kambera both came from Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta is the first location all three were introduced to each other. Let me tell you, gorilla introductions are very similar to our own introductions. Sometimes we immediately like a new friend, and sometimes it takes a little longer to warm up to an individual.

When we introduce gorillas, we start off with visual introductions, meaning that they can only see each other. After that, we move on to non-contact introductions (also called a “howdy” in zoological care terms). During this step, the gorillas can see and potentially touch each other, but do not have full access to one another. Finally, we move on to contact introductions where they have full access. Since everything is not always sunshine and rainbows in social introductions, there were multiple displays and a couple of minor cuts here and there, which was not a surprise and which is considered normal.

After the troop figured out how to get along and form their own hierarchy, we created a birth plan for Shalia. This is basically a written document that is created before an individual animal is pregnant to help animal care teams plan for upcoming pregnancies and births. Since Shalia has successfully raised a previous gorilla infant prior to Zoo Atlanta and appears to have a calmer and more confident demeanor, she was chosen to come off oral birth control first. Kambera will watch and hopefully learn some tips and tricks from Shalia until it is her turn.

Once we noticed multiple breeding events, we tested Shalia’s urine with a pregnancy test. Can you believe that it is the same kind of pregnancy test that humans use? We received our first positive pregnancy test on October 3. Using the gorilla gestation period of around eight and a half months, Shalia’s birth window is between the beginning of May and the middle of June.

Using positive reinforcement training, Shalia voluntarily participates in monthly prenatal ultrasounds, as well as maternal behaviors such as nipple desensitization, milk collection, and baby presentation. Nipple desensitization and milk collection are important because those behaviors allow us to send milk samples to the Smithsonian Institution for research purposes, as well as to make sure Shalia is lactating and nursing the infant properly.  Baby presentation is where the gorilla mother will essentially hold up her baby towards the care team (all behind a barrier, of course). This is especially important not only to fully examine the infant but to bottle feed the baby if the mother has issues with nursing or lactation. Whew, that was a lot of information! I hope you enjoyed learning all about the ins and outs of gorilla introductions, breeding, and motherhood. Have a lovely day!

Allie C.
Keeper I, Primates

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