Dedicated Gorilla keepers at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens have spent the last four months preparing baby Gandai for the time she can rejoin her mother, Kumbuka, and the rest of their Western Lowland Gorilla troop.
Kumbuka gave birth to little Gandai on September 28. Although Kumbuka’s initial maternal behavior toward the baby was perfect and normal, keepers noticed the new mother was cradling and carrying her youngster improperly---similarly to the way that she behaved when she lost two previous offspring at another zoo.
It is theorized that Kumbuka’s hearing disability may prevent her from detecting when her youngsters are in distress. The extremely difficult decision was made to remove Kumbuka’s baby for short-term assisted rearing by Gorilla care staff.
(ZooBorns shared news of the infant’s birth, as well as amazing photos, in a recent feature: “Western Lowland Gorilla Born at Jacksonville Zoo”)
Before the infant can be reintroduced, she needs to achieve specific milestones including walking, taking a bottle through mesh, the ability to hold on when being carried, and various developmental criteria. Keepers are proud to say Gandai has been making great strides in reaching these goals.
Gandai’s keepers have taken turns providing around-the-clock care since the decision was made to remove her from the troop. While assistance-rearing the young Gorilla, keepers have not just cared for Gandai like a mother would, but they have also focused on getting her to a point where she can return to her real mother. Keepers report that it has been both a demanding and rewarding journey.
To get little Gandai strong, and to teach her all the things a Gorilla would need to know to fit in with the Zoo’s troop, the keepers and Gandai went through what is affectionately being called “baby boot camp”.
Zoo staff were initially concerned with Gandai’s gripping ability in her right hand, so strength conditioning was made a priority. Gandai will need to be able to both position herself on Kumbuka when carried and to right herself when being held or sitting.
It is also crucially important that Gandai be able to navigate her habitat by herself. She will need to be able to come when called to take supplemental bottles and feedings. Most parents will relate when the keepers express their excitement, as Gandai is nearly phased-out of overnight bottles. She has been taught to take a bottle through the mesh barrier that separates the troop from keeper staff. Additionally, Gandai has been introduced to soft solid foods and is thoroughly enjoying banana, steamed sweet potatoes and cooked broccoli.
At 10 pounds and with a mouth full of teeth, Gandai is a feisty little primate who is known to pinch or nibble like a human infant would. Her keepers have been both teaching her gorilla manners and practicing healthy play with her. She enjoys playing with a mirror toy and tummy tickle time. These are ways keepers have been filling the role of mother while they have been caring for Gandai.
Now that Gandai has been reaching these benchmarks, the Zoo is planning for the reunion with Kumbuka and the troop within the next several months. Gandai has been raised in close proximity to her group since her birth in September.
The goal remains to have Gandai and Kumbuka reunited, as that would be the very best outcome for both. Female Gorillas gain their status in a group though motherhood. The Zoo has conferred with institutions experienced in assistance-rearing and for alternative plans should Kumbuka be unable to care for her infant.
Until Gandai is ready for the next exciting developmental step to join her family, she’ll be working on mastering actual physical steps with her devoted keepers.
For more info on Gandai and her progress, check with Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens website and social media pages: www.jacksonvillezoo.org