When people have children, new moms and dads rely on classes, experience of others and the numerous how-to books made available. Welcoming a new gorilla baby to the zoo is much the same thing when there is no other ‘mom’ that can lend her know-how. Getting ready is is hard work!
Luckily for us, gorillas are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). When a zoo receives a breeding recommendation, they also receive a Birth Management, Surrogate and Hand-rearing packet (our “how to” book). Zoos work closely together to help one another, and share knowledge to prepare colleagues – both near and far – to rear a baby if a gorilla mother struggles to do the job well. From finding a surrogate that can help be the mother figure for the baby, to hand-rearing, these networks offer advice and support so that a baby gorilla can thrive.
Gorilla mothers, on occasion, can fail to develop strong mothering instincts, resulting in less-than-ideal care for the baby. Kioja herself was partially hand-raised by keepers and has never seen a baby grow up in a troop, so this is something we are prepared for should it arise. In times like these, other female gorillas have been known to step in and help in this situation.
Zuri, our 19-year-old gorilla, showed mothering instincts with her first baby who is no longer at the Calgary Zoo, but unfortunately did not with her second offspring, and current zoo resident, Yewande. All the more reason why our staff is prepared for whatever happens when Kioja gives birth.
Introducing a little one to the troop could happen almost immediately after the labour, as Kioja could give birth in the main habitat. Separating Kioja from the others would add unneeded stress, so keeping them together at this time is a healthier option. Most gorilla births occur at night, so the habitat will remain on lockdown with limited staff having access to the family group.
Once the baby is born, our Animal Care team will closely monitor how Kioja takes to being a new mother.
Kioja’s inexperience due to being a first-time mother, and because she was partially hand-reared herself, may result in her being unwilling, or unsure how, to hold or feed the baby bring her baby to her nipple. By teaching these behaviours now, we may be able to encourage Kioja to get the baby in the proper feeding position when the time comes. Staff will be on hand to provide supplementary feedings if required.
If Kioja rejects her baby, we will be ready able to step in. The goal of the Calgary Zoo gorilla team is to offer Kioja all that she needs in order to calmly and instinctively care for her baby. Direct intervention will only occur if there is an emergency (i.e. – if the baby does not eat within the first 48 hours; if Kioja drops/hurts the baby, or if another member of the troop is aggressive towards the baby). Cameras are set up in the holding area to record anything that happens overnight. There are also cameras for the main habitat in case she gives birth on exhibit.
When Yewande was born in 2008, Calgary Zoo staff did step in to partially hand-raise her. Since we have previous experience with hand raising, and transitioning Yewande back into the troop, we are confident we will be able to provide Kioja and her baby everything they need.