Columbus Zoo’s New Baby Gorilla Was Years In The Making

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UPDATED: Wednesday June 26, 2013 11:49 PM

Last month, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium welcomed a healthy, five pound baby gorilla.  The happy baby boy was the result of four years of careful planning that is used to protect specific species at the zoo that are considered endangered or threatened.

Audra Meinelt, the assistant curator for the African Region of the Columbus Zoo, said in the weeks leading up to the gorilla’s birth, her staff had non-stop observation on the baby’s mom, Kambera.

After eight and a half months of pregnancy, Kambera went into labor during the overnight hours on May 23.

“You could see contractions, you could see that she was a little bit uncomfortable,” Meinelt said. “She was in labor a couple of hours and did give birth to a very healthy baby boy.”

Meinelt said the length of labor differs for each gorilla, but hers was only a couple of hours.  The baby was born at 3:23 a.m.

The Columbus Zoo’s Director of Animal Care, Doug Warmolts, said in 2009, the Association of Zoos and Aquarium, which Columbus is part of, met to discuss mating gorillas, with the goal being to manage specific threatened and endangered species throughout the country.

“Twenty years ago, breeding at the zoo was something that just happened in the spring, and there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into when and why and how,” Warmolts said. “Nowadays, breeding at zoos are intentionally done and planned out so we can manage space.”

The plan is called SSP, or the Species Survival Plan.  There are more than 300 plans nationwide with gorillas being one of the most successful.  

In 2013, the Columbus Zoo welcomed nearly a dozen new babies born under Species Survival Plans.  Among the new babies, four critically endangered Amur tiger cubs made their debut in late March.  There are fewer than 500 Amur tigers believed to exist in Russia.

The other babies born include a baby duiker, which is an antelope species, three Humboldt penguins and a Colobus monkey.

The baby gorilla now makes 31 gorillas that call the Columbus Zoo home.

“A birth of a gorilla at a zoo isn’t just a random event,” Warmolts said. “It’s something that we plan for very carefully.”

Warmolts said when a baby gorilla is born at a North American zoo, it is given a unique studbook number.  The studbook number identifies the gorilla’s gender, background, offspring and family tree.

“It also helps us understand and track the relatedness of that individual to the rest of the population, so it’s a pedigree of sorts,” Warmolts said.

Using special computer software, the Columbus Zoo staff identified one male gorilla in the national database that was deemed genetically important - a 19-year-old silverback named Oliver.

Zoo officials said Oliver was the last in his bloodline and only getting older.

“Oliver was a poorly represented male,” Warmolts said. “His genes were not represented in the population. He just simply hasn’t been with females much of his life or had the opportunity to breed.”

Oliver came to the zoo from a place called Gorilla Haven in Georgia.

The Haven’s former owner told 10TV’s Angela An that goats lived on the property with Oliver and gave him some companionship, but he needed to be more socialized with other gorillas.

In September 2009, as part of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, Oliver came to the Columbus Zoo.

“The purpose of Oliver coming to the zoo was two-fold,” Warmolts said. “One is, we wanted to socialize him. They are social animals and he needed to be with other animals and he needed to be in a social setting, so we wanted to bring him in and then build a family group around him. A second purpose was to allow him to breed with a female so his genetic material was represented in the overall population.”

Oliver and Kambera, who was born by Caesarean section in 1999 at the Columbus Zoo, were matched as breeding partners.

But it took some time for the zoo staff to learn how to work with Oliver because he’s deaf.

“We needed to get used to how we could communicate with Oliver,” Warmolts said. “He adapted very quickly to the way we do things here, we adapted to him, and the social interactions between Oliver and the other gorilla was of a normal gorilla.”

The staff said it waited until Oliver and his family group was stable before allowing him to breed.

The new baby gorilla is the first offspring for both parents.  He too has a studbook number with details including mom, dad, and the date and time he was born.

Meinelt said the baby gorilla is now under human surrogate care, because Kambera would not connect with the baby.

“After a certain period of time, she went ahead and laid the baby down,” Meinelt said. “We still gave her opportunities to come and be able to pick him up and decide that she wanted to care for him. Again, just the lack of experience that she had, she chose that she was not ready for that.”

The zoo staff said it sits with the baby next to other gorillas at various times of the day, hoping Kambera, or another female in the family group, will take to the baby.

That usually happens within the first five months after birth, experts said.

Zookeepers will continue Kambera’s lactation process, just in case her motherly instincts kick in.

While the staff is waiting on Kambera, it tries to emulate a mother’s behavior entirely.

“We are holding them at all times, just like a gorilla,” Meinelt said. “We’re making gorilla vocalizations whenever we’re feeding the baby because that’s what a mom would do.”

The gorilla surrogacy program has made the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium famous around the world since 1956.

That is when a gorilla baby named Colo became the first gorilla born under human care. Colo still holds the record for longevity.

The Columbus Zoo believes these babies aren’t just part of a master plan.  They believe it is a responsibility to preserve endangered species for future generations to appreciate.

There are approximately 120,000 western lowland gorillas left in the wild. The numbers of wild gorillas are declining due to poaching, habitat destruction, and diseases like Ebola.

In the past two weeks, central Ohioans have been submitting name suggestions for the baby gorilla and the zoo has narrowed it down to three top choices:  Dusty, Diesel, and Kamoli.

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