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Tuesday, January 12

Well, so many great subjects have been talked about lately, where does one begin? Well, to go along with the top questions keepers get asked, here are a couple others: “Are the animals friendly?” “Do you go in with them/play with them?” The answer for most of us is not just a simple “Yes” or “No.” There are many factors that can determine how closely keepers are able to work with the animals in their care. I’ll just answer from the primate perspective.
I work with the great apes housed here at Zoo Atlanta. We have western lowland gorillas and both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. We work with these guys through what’s called “protected contact.” That means we are never in the same space at the same time as one of our apes. We can train and interact with them through a mesh barrier. They are still wild animals that are habituated to humans, but we haven’t altered their personalities or natural instincts. We do our best to work with them and figure out what they find rewarding to allow easier training and daily husbandry. We work hard to build bonds of trust with each of our primates, and it’s very rewarding when you have a breakthrough training moment or an animal chooses to come near you to “hang out” for a minute or even just lets you witness them do something silly.
Primates are very strong for their size, even the young ones, so it’s just too risky to trust that we would be okay in the same enclosure with them. If you get a chance to watch them play or even get a little rough with each other, you can imagine that it wouldn’t go so well for us fragile humans!
For instance a few years ago one of our gorilla babies became ill and had to be looked after by the Vet and Keeper staff. The little gorilla was around 7 months old and weighed between eight and nine pounds, but she had all of her teeth and knew that we were not her mother! We handled her very carefully and kept her swaddled in thick blankets. We also wore thick leather “bite” gloves to protect our hands. She would go from sleeping peacefully to trying to bite us in a matter of moments. We never take them away from their family casually; she was very ill and it was important for her health and recovery that we were able to have access to her for medications and fluids. As soon as she was feeling better, she was reunited with her worried mom ASAP!
Now, on to the MacGyvers of the primate world…the orangutans. Our smarty-pants Bornean family is no longer allowed to have sheets or fabric. They figured out that by taking strips of material and wrapping it around the mesh bars they could “saw” through some of the metal welds. That takes not only brains, but a lot of strength!
So, you see, it’s a little more involved than “Yes, they’re friendly” or “No, we don’t get to go in and play with them.” They are allowed to be as wild as possible in our zoological setting, and we are privileged to spend time with these amazing animals on a daily basis.
Kristina Krickbaum
Keeper II, Primates

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl