Zoo Families!

So, as you may know, zoos often obtain their animals via inter-zoo breeding programs that connect zoos with once species of animal, and compare those animals for a good genetic match for the possibility of mating. Sometimes, families end up spread out across the country once the members reach breeding age and start a happy little zoo family of their own! These zoo families are unique both in the ways that they differ and imitate their lives in the wild.

My position within the Conservation Education department allowed me to really familiarize myself with two major zones of the zoo, mine being African Plains/McNeil Avian Center and the PECO Primate Reserve. Today I’m going to talk about two families in our primate reserve, our Sumatran Orangutans and our Western Lowland Gorillas.

Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, with an estimated 14,000 individuals remaining, 80% of their habitat has been destroyed over the past 20 years. At the zoo, we have three sumatran orangutans, Sugi (father), Tua (mother) and Batu (daughter). In the wild, father orangutans do not stick around help raise the young, though the mother will invest heavily into each infant, nursing them for 4-5 years! Though, in the zoo, Sugi is consistently interacting with his daughter by building nests, grooming her and cuddling her. Despite the fact that they are in captivity, meaning Sugi is unable to physically leave the family, it is believed that Sugi learned his fatherly characteristics from his own father.

Compared to the orangutans, our gorilla family has a slightly more complicated family structure. Gorilla families are often referred to as “troops”, which typically include one adult male gorilla, a few female mates, and their offspring. At the zoo our troop includes, Motuba (Father), Honi (Mother), Kira (Mother), Amani (Offspring of Motuba and Honi) and Ajabu (Offspring of Motuba and Kira). Our other troop includes two bachelor males, Louis and Kuchimba. Kuchimba is actually Honi’s son, they both came from a different zoo, and Motuba is not his father. Kuchimba can not have contact with the family group because of Motuba’s territorial instincts. Regardless of lineage, when a young male gorilla grows up, he must leave the troop and start his own family.

The family troop are adorable to watch! With Ajabu’s first birthday back in June and Amani turning two in august, the two are similar in size and often wrestle and climb with each other. While dad minds his own business, the moms watch closely, and occasionally grab their little one when it’s time to calm down, but the mother gorillas will never touch the other gorilla’s offspring. I imagine this is much like when human mothers get offended when someone “tries to tell them how to raise their child”, I can hear my stepsister firmly speaking to my stepdad in the back of my mind, “Dad, I’M her mother, remember?”. Though I have no children, I could definitely see myself reiterating that statement somewhere down the line.

The two bachelor males are almost equally as adorable to watch as the two babies, as they sort of act like giant children. Louis and Kuchimba do not live together, but have gorilla playdates about once per day where they spend their time wrestling, lounging around and even comforting each other. Though they are not technically a family, they are indeed best friends.

Zoo families can differ a lot from what us humans think of as a “normal” family. But, then again what even is normal? Many guests come peer into our gorilla habitat and shockingly ask, “So, he has babies with BOTH of them?”. For me, it seems a little less strange, growing up, since I was about six years old, I ┬áhad two full sisters and three step-siblings all under one roof with my mom and stepdad – except they never actually remarried so none of them are actually my step-siblings at all. Try explaining that when you’re eight years old and don’t even know what marriage is!

The youngest orangutan, Batu, seeking shelter under a paper bag

One of our baby gorillas, Ajabu

Sugi with his daughter, Batu


Batu climbing

Tua, Sugi and Batu who is hiding under the paper bag

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *