Gorilla Forest is now open at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory! This $11 million exhibit redesign and overhaul features seven gorillas, six of whom are new to Como Zoo, and the largest all-mesh gorilla enclosure in North America.
Gorillas are one of the nations most favorite zoo animals, according to a recent Harris Poll, ranking in the top ten (Como is home to 9 of the top 10). Gorillas have been a part of Como’s rich history since the mid-1950’s and were one of the first zoos in the nation to engage in breeding loans of great apes to other zoos so that reproduction of these species could be improved.
The Gorilla Forest construction included the addition of a major outdoor exhibit and significant improvements and expansions to the existing indoor facilities. All changes to the exhibit exceed the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements for holding, exhibiting and managing great apes. The 13,000 square foot outdoor space, almost three times larger than the previous space, was designed to give the gorillas ample room to play, climb, forage and display their extraordinary family and social dynamics to the public while minimizing stress on the gorillas and creating up close and personal views of the gorillas for visitors.
The indoor facilities, including the behind-the-scenes areas, were enlarged and could make mating these endangered species a possibility for Como. The new gorilla holding building provides plenty of natural light and two stories for the animals with view windows and perches so the gorillas can see out. Improvements to existing rockwork and trees provide more horizontal space for gorillas and planned family groups. Better ventilation, lighting, drainage and a new rainforest mural on the dayroom wall create an improved environment for the animals and viewing experience for the public.
While designing Gorilla Forest, Como emphasized the necessity of creating an enriching experience for guests as well as improving conditions for the animals. A recent study from the Institute for Learning Innovation found that children and adults who visit Como Zoo and similar facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums “leave the zoo thinking differently about their role in environmental problems.” Researchers noted that a zoo visit makes visitors feel they can make difference in solving environmental challenges, with significant increases in visitors who agree with the statements “There is a lot I can do to conserve” and “I am a part of the solution to nature’s problems.” Armed with this knowledge, Como designed this exhibit with the goal of informing and empowering the public, while maintaining a pleasing aesthetic experience.
Como Zoo is continuing its recent baby boom and is thrilled to announce the addition of a baby western lowland gorilla to its troop. The female gorilla was born in the evening hours of Sunday, February 22, 2015, to first-time mother Dara inside the day room of the Gorilla Forest exhibit. At approximately five pounds at birth, the baby gorilla appears healthy and strong.
It is extremely important for mom and baby to bond shortly after birth and for the baby to begin nursing. While bonding wasn’t an issue for the pair, nursing was in question. On Wednesday morning zoo staff, medical and veterinary professionals were able to gain access to the baby for a physical that included giving the baby fluids. The baby was soon reunited with her mother and shortly after that regular, timely nursing began. Zoo staff continues to monitor the pair. They will likely make their public debut late in the month of March.
Typically Zoo staff will not intervene unless the health of the infant is compromised or the mother shows no motherly instinct. In this case, the baby and mother were able to work out the situation with guidance from the Como Zoo staff and medical and veterinary professionals.
As a tribute to the late Arlene Scheunemann, often referred to as Como’s “Zoo Mom,” the baby will be named “Arlene”. Beginning in 1968 and spanning 45 years, Arlene Scheunemann was mother to four human children and foster mom to over 200 wild animals in her home. Arlene was responsible for the care and feeding of newborn animals such as tigers, orangutans, and gorillas in the days before Como had the facilities to care for infant animals. She was a tireless advocate for improving the lives and safety of animals, procuring funding for zoo improvements, and promoting sustainability of Como Zoo. Arlene’s patience, perseverance, tenacity, and never-ending dedication ensured survival for many of the animals she cared for and helped make Como Zoo what it is today. Arlene is the subject of Zoo Mom: The Life of Arlene Scheunemann, a biography released in May 2014.
Gorillas have an eight and a half month gestation period followed by an unassisted birthing process. Offspring are born nearly helpless except to cling to their mother’s fur and to nurse. Young gorillas stay with their mothers for several years after birth. At birth, baby gorillas weigh between 4 and 5 pounds. Each animal at Como Zoo has its own Birth Management Plan. Como has been recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as a leader in gorilla care and conservation for 56 years.
Gorilla mothers are very protective of their babies. A gorilla mother will carry the baby on her chest for the first three months. At about 6-months-old the baby will move to ride on the mother’s back and begin playing and moving around on the ground close to mother. “Gorillas are very family oriented,” said Jo Kelly, Senior Zookeeper. “Mom will let other family members see the baby and they will take their cues from mom as to how close they can be.” When the baby is older and able to move around on its own, other family members, including dad, will play with the baby.
The baby’s father, Schroeder, a 29-year-old silverback Western lowland gorilla, has been at Como Zoo since 1991. Schroeder’s troop includes females Dara (11), Nne (26 and pronounced E-Nee), and Alice (12) who also gave birth to a baby in November 2014, but sadly her baby passed away shortly after birth. Alice and Dara both came to Como Zoo as part of the AZA Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP). The Gorilla SSP serves 52 zoos across the United States to help guide the management of the gorilla population.
Out of 437 gorilla births at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions since 1980, 26% of males and 20% of females did not make it to their first birthday. In wild-living western gorilla populations, mortality rates in the first year of life have been reported up to 42% and in mountain gorillas, first-time mothers have 50% higher infant mortality rates than second-time mothers.
With this recent addition, Como Zoo continues its involvement in the Gorilla SSP. One of the SSP’s most important roles is to manage gorillas as a population to ensure that the population remains healthy, genetically-diverse and self-sustaining. Native to the lowland forests of Central and Western Africa, Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. Commercial hunting for meat, habitat loss and disease are contributing factors to their status in the wild.
Photo by Farzad Sadjadi