What a Silverback Gorilla Taught Me About Diplomacy

I live in Calgary, Alberta.  We have an excellent zoo in our city and I have held an annual membership for eight straight years.  Let me deal with the zoo detractors now:  yes, keeping an animal in a cage is not cool, even if it is for educational purposes but let’s face it, city folk are desensitized to cramped habitat.  Our day is broken up into compartmentalized spaces:  our homes, our work, box stores, grocery stores and the gym.  When a walk in the forest or jungle isn’t an option, the next best thing is distraction. When I take my family to the zoo, we derive entertainment from watching the animals and the animals derive entertainment from watching us.  People watching is an actual thing; sit on a bench in a mall or attend a Comic-Con convention.  You get the picture.

Needless to say, we have gone to the zoo A LOT.  My eight year old son would rather not go to the zoo now but he loves his little sister and she loves the zoo.  She is two years old and the last time we went, we rode the carousel which has lovely ornate animals carved out of wood.  On her first ride (because, believe me, there were several) she started pointing and naming off all the animals: giraffe, tiger, penguin, lion, gorilla, seal, lizard, horse, hippopotamus (yes, all 5 syllables). Wow.  I actually took it for granted she was learning anything. Though, I doubt she’s concerned about habitat loss or species endangerment.  For myself, especially on quiet days when the zookeepers are starved for human interaction, I have been able to acquire juicy tidbits of zoo gossip. For example, the female hippopotamus is a bitch.  There is only one breeding pair and she is on husband #2.  She was originally paired with a fairly elderly fellow and she gave him a hard time whenever the mood suited her.  Whereas her dark grey body was smooth and folded into healthy rolls of fat, his skin was usually lacerated and puffy with pink contusions caused by her short tempered nips.  Have you ever seen hippopotamus teeth?  Love nips these were not.  He eventually died of old age but his health was made poorer by domestic abuse.   Alas, husband #2 is now showing the same tell tale signs of  abuse.  How quickly the honeymoon phase ends.

It is no surprise the best zoo gossip can be found with the gorilla troop.  Their social dynamics are most akin to ours being that both our genera started up the same family ladder.   They wrestle, tease one another, attempt displays of bravado or intimidation, nit pic each other – literally, because grooming is an important habit and generally look occupied with mutual observation and boredom.  Which is the same look I have when I’m sitting at the mall waiting for my daughter to finish up with the play area.  These play areas are usually a boxed in assortment of car and animal moulds finished with spray paint and a flexible veneer so the kids can slide easily on and off.  The walls are padded and have the occasional placement of puzzle boards with things that swish, grumble and clack when moved.  All the parents are usually numb with a mixture of boredom and fatigue and their faces are aglow with smartphone reverie.  At least the bench seats against the interior enclosure are padded.  And you have to take off your shoes so you get to sit there in socked feet.  In retrospect, I’ve experienced the anthropomorphized version of a gorilla enclosure.  The gorillas have moulded trees and rocks , ample straw to lay about and enrichment activities all the while barefoot and shrouded in the glow of smartphone camera flashes.

The Calgary zoo gorilla troop is special because of one member in particular: Kakinga.  He is the silverback gorilla or the leader of the troop.  He is paternal, calm and good natured.  He rarely if ever displays outward signs of aggression and steps in during family disputes only after holding back and observing, allowing the fractious members time to sort it out themselves.  15 years ago, a female gorilla, Zuri was brought to Calgary after a failed attempt to integrate her into the troop at the Toronto zoo.  The problem was Zuri acted too human.  She had been bottle fed and handled by the zookeepers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs and had inadvertently picked up some of their habits and behavior.  The Calgary troop and Kakinga were her best chance at integration and seven years after her introduction, she successfully birthed a baby girl, Yewande.  What was the more significant aspect of this story was Zuri didn’t know how to be a gorilla mom after her experiences with humans.  The Calgary zookeepers taught Yewande to feed on a bottle offered through the cage mesh to avoid handling her and  Kakinga took over the majority of the parenting. I observed first hand Zuri wandering away from Yewande, leaving her young daughter in potentially hazardous situations and Kakinga quickly sauntering over to his daughter to gently nudge her to safer play and feeding areas.  He has allowed her and her playmates easy access to his private space, demonstrating exceptional patience and gentleness for a silverback.  Kakinga’s demeanor is so gentle, there was an attempt to introduce two juvenile males to the troop.  Kakinga, it turns out, is no dummy.  The males were not allowed to join the troop, securing Kakinga’s dominance and eliminating any possibility of future squabbles.

There are long panes of windows that cover roughly a third of the enclosure’s perimeter.  The female gorillas sometimes prop their feet up against the window, rest lazily on the straw while chewing their cud and take the occasional interested glance at the children smooshing their faces against the glass.  There is one gorilla that likes to randomly thump the glass to watch visitors’ startled reactions.  I’ve never seen Kakinga do this.  He displays proper gorilla etiquette, keeping his wide, muscled back to us and maintaining the aloofness as befits a noble leader.  Actually, this isn’t entirely true.  Many years ago, before kids, my husband and I went to the zoo.  It was one of those dead winter days, half an hour after the gates had closed for the day and so quiet the zookeeper told us not to rush as he did his final checks through the ape and monkey building.  We moved up to the glass and because there was no one to judge us, we squatted down and half turned our backs to the troop, casting our gaze down to show our submissiveness (yes, I watched “Gorillas in the Mist” with Sigourney Weaver).  Kakinga moved toward the glass and rested his back on the window.  He was inches away from us; he occasionally glanced over his shoulder at us and we kept our gaze down and snuck the occasional look towards him.  The other troop members made half attempts to peer at us but otherwise left Kakinga to inspect us.  We sat there huddled like that for half an hour, impressed by the strength and presence of his mass and honored that he wanted to be close to us.  We had to leave when the zookeeper came for the final sweep but I could have stayed there for hours just for the remarkable feeling of humbleness that had overwhelmed me.

Given the question of what  I admire in a person, I would have to reference my knowledge of Kakinga: patience, compassion, intelligence and an innate goodness.   As a result, his troop is happy, rambunctious and relaxed.  I like to think I’ve taken a few pages from his playbook and given my own family that same sense of safety and caring.  More importantly, I’ve learned to step back and observe and wait.  We don’t do it enough, I think:  the idea of relinquishing control to give others the opportunity to make mistakes and solve their own problems.   There is always someone out there willing to solve your problems.  They seem to live in a special land called infomercial or in the self-help section at Chapters.  Maybe we need to trust ourselves more and listen to our instincts.   While we’re busying ourselves trying to save the animals, we should pause to learn how they can save us.

 

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