A Day in the Life of the Gorilla Forest Staff

By Kara Bussabarger

Her deep, milk chocolate-brown eyes shot long glances down the hall. Then grunts and snorts rumbled from her depths like seismic activity.

“That’s Demba,” Michelle Wise explained, nodding toward the noise. “She likes to talk to us with her cheerful vocalizations.”

Demba, a 38-year-old Western Lowland Gorilla, is one of 11 gorillas at awardwinning Gorilla Forest, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken at the Louisville Zoo. Its goal is to immerse visitors into the world of gorillas and inspire understanding and caring.

“I am very proud to be working at one of the best gorilla exhibits in the world,” said Wise, a Gorilla Forest keeper. “We definitely have bragging rights here.”

It takes a team of six to keep Gorilla Forest running, and it begins each day at 7:30 a.m. After congenial “good mornings” to all the gorillas, food preparation begins—orange slices, juice, fiber cones, children’s chewable vitamins, smoothies for the
older gorillas and birth control pills for the females. Depending on age and size, an average gorilla is fed a total of between 15 and 25 pounds of fruit and vegetables throughout the day in various ways.

Some is scattered in habitat areas for foraging, other food is hand fed by keepers and a portion is used for enrichment.

“There, it is finished,” said Gorilla Forest Supervisor Roby Elsner as he tied the last
knot on the big, white barrel punctured with holes and filled with grapes.

Minutes later, young silverback gorilla Mshindi began to handle the barrel like a candy dispenser. Each tap poured down a rain of the sweet, purple delicacies through the carved holes.

“I knew he would like it,” Elsner said with a smile. Down the hall, Wise and fellow keeper Cynthia Cole worked on cleaning a back bedroom.

“Unfortunately most people have the misconception we just play with the gorillas all day, but we don’t,” Wise said, sweeping up soiled hay. “Most of the time this isn’t  glamorous work and includes routine activities like cleaning up after the animals. But we strive to give our animals the best care we can, and we work hard at it.”

There is a sense of immense responsibility among the Gorilla Forest staff. They are charged with caring for some of the world’s most endangered animals.

“We are devoted to them,” Elsner said of the gorillas. “You can’t help but have an
attachment to them. If you aren’t an animal person, you might not understand, but it is an exorbitant, extra-special attachment, and we do all we can to make sure they have the best life possible.”

Cole agrees. “Each time I am with the gorillas, I inhale and take in every little detail  about them. They are dearly loved.”

Gorilla Forest is at the forefront of gorilla husbandry. With close access to the gorillas in a unique rotational set-up, staff is given  freedom to add plenty of variety to the gorillas’ lives, and Elsner noted that scientific studies have shown that rotational  exhibits instill well-being in gorillas.

Not only do the gorillas have an array of options in outdoor space and bedrooms, but  staff often changes the furniture in the rooms adding even more enrichment diversity.

“We really maximize the vertical space of each room,” Elsner said, pointing out barrels, high shelves and natural tree branches with bark that the gorillas enjoy chewing.

High on top of the Gorilla Forest rooftop, Wise looked out across the large, grassy, outdoor habitat. “I guess Timmy’s not coming out,” she said. “But oh, there’s Kweli, Paki and Mia Moja.”

This is one of Wise’s favorite places at the Zoo.

“I like to come up here and watch them,” she said. “They don’t notice me, and I fade into the background. It’s like watching them as if they were in the wild. I get to see them gracefully climb trees, play and interact. It’s mesmerizing.”

And that is the emotion the staff hopes visitors feel when they visit the exhibit.

“Each time a visitor has an up-close experience with a gorilla, they make a personal connection,” Wise said.

“Hopefully that link will stir something inside of them to help save gorillas and other animals in the wild and preserve them. At least that is our goal.”

Originally published in Trunkline Magazine.