The Satya Interview:
I Was a Gorilla's Mom
The bond between
human and non-human animals can often be a close one. But
it rarely comes closer than being a surrogate parent. Satya
interviewed a surrogate mother to a gorilla at the Bronx
Zoo. For personal reasons, the interviewee does not wish
to be identified.
Q: How did you become a surrogate mother to a gorilla?
A: I had met two women who were human gorilla mothers.
They recommended that I apply for the job and I got it.
It was a part-time job with no benefits and little pay.
Q: What qualifications did you have to obtain a position
A: I had volunteered with animals for years. However,
I had no formal education in this field. Three others were
hired for this position, so there were four surrogates
in all. Another woman had opened up her home to three infant
apes and then, once they were a year old, they were brought
to the zoo where a small staff took care of them in a small
enclosure where they could observe the rest of the gorilla
group through a screen-like device. After a year or two,
they were introduced to a loving female in the hopes that
she would act as a protector when they were introduced
to gorilla society. Once the female obtained an affinity
for the babies. They were introduced to the entire gorilla
group which they had been observing throughout the entire
Q: What did you do as a surrogate?
A: First we would prepare the food. In the beginning,
the babies drank only milk and ate some cereal. Then we
weaned them onto a diet of fruits, "monkey chow" -- a commercial
food for monkeys, rather like dry dog food -- and vegetables.
After feeding, we would check them out physically to see
that they were healthy. Throughout the day, we would play
with them, observe their behavior, touch them as often
as possible, and give them massive amounts of attention.
I would also have to leave periodically for them to gain
a sense of independence, just the way one would with a
human child. We tried to teach them foraging -- hunting
for their own food -- by hiding food in different areas
so that the gorillas would have to search. We did this
to assist in the babies' eventual introduction into the
Q: Where did these particular baby gorillas come from?
A: The three babies I surrogated were born in captivity
and taken from their mothers a day or two after their birth.
Q: Why couldn't the mother gorillas raise their children?
A: Actually for many years the Zoo had been trying
to have the females raise their own babies but, after three
deaths, they realized that another tactic was necessary;
which is how they came to surrogating.
Q: Did you ever encounter the natural mother? What was
her reaction upon seeing you?
A: As I said before, each female is unique and individual.
Another woman in the program with me explained that the
gorilla mother of the baby she was surrogating would stare
and run up close to her when she walked by with the child.
When the woman would walk by with a different baby, the
mother acted uninterested. To this day, this surrogate
is convinced that the female knew that she had taken her
baby. Personally, I never noticed any response from the
natural mother to me. What is apparent, though, is that
some mothers mourn following the birth of a child. You
see, the baby is taken from the mother a day or two after
the birth. Some mothers go about their business immediately,
but a few mothers display depression and melancholy. One
mother cried and searched for her baby for days.
Q: Do you ever see the baby gorillas now?
A: Yes, I've seen them several times. By now, they
should be approximately seven or eight years old. One of
the gorillas was moved to a Memphis zoo and is doing quite
well. Another is still at the Bronx Zoo and has herself
been a mother several times; she is presently rearing her
own child, which is a such a triumph. The third, sadly,
died of cancer.
Q: How did you deal with giving them up?
A: The first time was tearful and extremely hard.
It was a moving experience and rather sad, yet, I knew
that it should end. In fact, the entire program will end
as more females are taught to rear their own young. There'll
always be a need for surrogating because gorillas, just
like humans, are all different. Some female gorillas instinctively
possess mothering tendencies and have an inherent emotional
attachment to their young. Other mothers, however, ignore
their children and a surrogate is forced to take her place.
There have been some known cases where a male gorilla in
captivity displayed mothering techniques. He would beat
his chest and run toward anyone in a threatening manner
if they approached the children. He would also lean over
and guard the babies' milk when anyone approached. These
are rare cases, though, and there is still a need in zoos
for human surrogates.
Q: What methods can be used to reduce the need for human
A: There are places that teach gorillas proper rearing
techniques. For example, a baby doll is used early on in
a female's life to show the proper delicacy and handling
which real baby gorillas need. Also, a female will be given
a reward, a treat, for breastfeeding her young.
Q: What lesson did you learn from nurturing this baby?
A: Well, for starters, I learned that gorillas bite.
I also now know that, in most cases, they are considerably
nicer than human babies: less whiny and incredibly sweet.
At birth, their bodies are all muscle. Whereas a human
child is flabby and has a fatty layer, a gorilla baby is
hard and muscular. My years of surrogating were my happiest
work experience so far. It was a enlightening and positive
experience. Being so close to another species was wonderful.
I learned so much from the gorilla. The relationship I
formed with the gorilla young was like none other I've
ever experienced. You don't create the same relationship
with gorilla young as you do with a human child, obviously.
But true connections occur nevertheless. After this experience,
I have so much more respect for gorillas and other species.
And I feel strongly that there should be protection for
Anonymous on Zoos
Q: How do you feel about the trade in exotic animals?
A: In the past, a great deal of damage was done as a result
of this practice. It's a tragic situation because the individuals
who capture the animals are in dire straights. They are at a loss
for employment; they are perilously impoverished. In some cases,
exotic animal trade is their only means of living. It is our responsibility
to make sure that there is no market for exotic animals. I see
a huge problem with Asia and their use of endangered species, such
as tigers and rhinos, for medicine.
Q: Where does the Bronx Zoo, or any zoo, aquarium or wildlife
park, obtain its exotic animals?
A: In the United States, in accredited zoos, the animals
are either born into captivity or traded from other zoos. I
think the last time a gorilla was caught for a zoo was in 1973.
Zoos don't collect the large or endangered animals anymore.
In cases of a seriously threatened endangered species, a zoo
may intervene and try reproductive measures, as with the black-footed
ferret and the California condor.
Q: When there is a surplus of animals raised or bought by
a zoo, what happens to them?
A: I don't know the specific details but I think that these animals are
placed on a list, this list is then published and transferred between
the zoos so that trading can begin. Many animals are loaned between zoos
for purposes of breeding, for long term placement, or in cases where
zoo exhibits are being renovated.
Q: Do you feel that zoos are a necessary part of human society?
A: That's a difficult question to answer. I think that
zoos are necessary to many because they provide a forum to
teach the public about animals and in another way, they satisfy
us. In the last 20 years, zoos have improved immensely. The
value of education is much more important now: education for
the public, the handlers and staff and about the animals. I
know many people talk about eliminating zoos altogether and
that zoos are unethical, but I know that zoos are a permanent
part of human society and we must work for the possibility
of enlightened zoos. We must steer away from roadside and carnival
zoos and try, instead, to create an atmosphere of protection
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