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December 1996
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 of surrogating?
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 surrogating period.

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 gorilla group.

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 surrogates?
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 them.

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 and conservation.


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