Oliver the special gorilla
Oliver, the newest edition to the Western lowland gorilla population at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, is an extremely well-travelled primate; he’s probably seen more of the country than many humans.
He joined the Columbus Zoo in September, 2009, but all these months later he remains on his own in an enclosure that is segregated from the other 14 gorillas at the zoo, as well as the approximately 4900 visitors that tour the zoo each day.
When he first joined the zoo, he was called a “special gorilla” by his new keepers, and they announced to Columbus news media that he would be integrated into the rest of the population within a month or so.
Why does he remain alone and segregated all these months later then? Well, because he’s special. Oliver is deaf, the cause of his loss of hearing is unknown, but his condition makes him vulnerable in ways that the zoo’s staff don’t fully understand, it is a delicate and complex situation that they are faced with.
This is because Oliver is special in other ways too, in the same way as every gorilla in captivity, he is one among just 325 gorillas in captivity in North America, and represents the breeding demographic of an animal species on the brink of extinction.
There are few gorillas left in the wild, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to over 100,000. His purpose at the zoo is, therefore, to breed and secure the future of his generation. It’s a hefty responsibility for this 21-year-old who has had little experience with other gorillas in his life.
Oliver was born in 1988 at the Bronx Zoo, he was hand reared, as a precaution to ensure his survival, and then returned to his mother at age 3. When he was 6 he was introduced to an all male group of gorillas (three in total) at the Memphis Zoo, but was soon moved back to Bronx Zoo when his group was split up. The responsibility of breeding called.
But in 2007 he was moved to the Gorilla Haven Sanctuary in Georgia, a facility that had an enclosure designed for Gorillas with special needs, such as Oliver, who found it difficult to integrate because of his hearing difficulties.
This was a difficult time for Oliver. He was kept in a “Gorilla Villa” a large and extremely well-equipped enclosure, but he on his own, away from his own kind because of his condition, and he was extremely lonely.
The couple who ran the privately-owned sanctuary Jane and Steuart Dewar, fell in love with Oliver, but realized he needed to be socialized with his own species, he seemed depressed, and the picture above (courtesy of Jane Dewar) shows this quite touchingly. The goat in the picture is one of two that lived with him in the villa, but they were not the friends he needed.
“Oliver's got such a gentle and sweet way about him. He loves to please humans, but he wants to be with other gorillas,” Jane Dewar told Columbus news provider Columbus Dispatch.
His situation shows the complexities involved in socializing these intricate and near-human animals. When you look into Oliver’s eyes you see a depth of emotion and an understanding in his face that goes beyond any other animal’s interaction with its world.
He knows what is happening around him, and understands that he is isolated when he shouldn’t be. But socialization is a difficult business. The Columbus Zoo, which has over 5000 animals representing around 800 species, is also home to three other male gorillas or ‘Silverbacks’, and they each keep their entourage of females and offspring.
These families live independently of one another.
In order for Oliver to have his own family, he will need to be socialized with some of the zoo’s population of females, but this is difficult because there’s no knowing how they will react to each other, they may remain aloof, or Oliver may attack them, or they might attack Oliver.
The gorilla from which they take the females may become violent.
The emotions of gorillas are highly-developed and sensitive, much like a human, and they can be as unpredictable as humans. Due to this, the zoo’s staff have a challenging task, because all the gorillas are just too valuable to risk injury or death.
Audra Meinelt, head keeper for the Columbus gorillas, has said that the zoo is now looking at possibly bringing in females from other zoo facilities in the country for him to be integrated with.
According to Meinelt, Oliver seems like a normal gorilla, he vocalizes in the same manner and understands the rudimentary sign language zoo keepers use to communicate with the gorillas.
The overriding concern is balancing his needs with those of the other gorillas at the zoo, according to Meinelt, but he must breed, it is critically important to the survival of his species, therefore the zoo is collaborating with Kristen Lukas and her organization.
Lukas is the chairwoman of the Species Survival Plan for Gorillas, a group that manages the 352 gorillas in North American zoos. The zoo will wait for her and her colleagues to assess the situation and make a recommendation on how, and with whom, to integrate Oliver.
They are planning to meet in May to make a decision.
Oliver is more valuable than most gorillas because both his parents were wild, and he was their only offspring.
“My dream of all dreams is that he has two or three females who adore him. And that he makes some babies,” said Jane Dewar, adding that Oliver would be a great group leader and an impressive display animal.
Oliver seems to have this dream too. Although zoo keepers insist he appears calm and under no stress at the zoo, there is that look in his eyes, that depthless understanding that comes from thousands of years of evolution, a small glint that shows he’s not as happy as he should be.
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