Our New Infant Gorilla
Early spring brought a significant birth and addition to the Louisville Zoo family. The birth held excitement mixed with loss for the staff as we celebrated the arrival of an infant gorilla and we mourned the passing of her mother — 27 year-old Mia Moja — following an emergency cesarean section.
Kindi’s Birth Story
In the early morning hours of March 14, 2016, Louisville Zoo staffers arrived and discovered Mia in distress. Soon afterward, Zoo veterinarians and a quickly assembled team of specialists anesthetized and examined Mia. An ultrasound exam was conducted and it was determined that the gorilla fetus was alive. In the best interest of Mia and her fetus, the team elected to perform an emergency cesarean section to deliver Kindi three weeks early.
Human healthcare specialists OBGyn’s Dr. James W. Forrester and Dr. Robert C. Zoller of Partners in Women’s Health went to work with Zoo Veterinarians Drs. Zoli Gyimesi and Julie Ter Beest. At 12:35 p.m., we saw our first glimpse of the female infant gorilla, immediately tended to by University of Louisville neonatologist Dr. Tonya Robinson.
Staff was enthusiastic about the birth and hopeful about Mia’s recovery and the prospect of watching Mia raise Kindi in their family group. The entire staff was deeply saddened by Mia’s passing the following morning. Although the official results of Mia’s necropsy (animal autopsy) are still pending, the healthcare team, including Jefferson County Coroner Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones, determined that Mia had placenta previa: a condition in which the birth canal was blocked by the placenta causing the excessive hemorrhaging. ”Complications from the birth are the reason Mia died,” said Weakly-Jones. “…Most of the time, in humans at least, the mother and the baby both die if you can’t get them to a hospital quickly because the hemorrhage is that great. The Zoo is very, very lucky to have a live baby.” The loss of Mia strengthened the staff‘s resolve to help her tiny infant gorilla survive and thrive.
The Important Task for Kindi’s Caregivers
Gorilla zoo keepers who form the gorilla care staff (Kelly Bennett, Jane Anne Franklin, Jill Katka, Richard Laird, Shea Mikel, Alexis Williamson and Michelle Wise) have stepped up to the very important task of raising Kindi for her first few months while a gorilla surrogate is determined. In the short term, caring for the physical needs of this premature baby gorilla has been paramount; but equally important is doing so in a way that helps teach her what it means to be a gorilla.
Day-to-Day with Kindi
Once Kindi was ready, she was moved to her behind-the-scenes nursery: a dedicated space in Gorilla Forest devoted to her immediate care and hand rearing. This nursery provides a protected environment exposed to the sights, sounds, smells and controlled contact with other gorillas so important to Kindi’s future reintegration into a gorilla family via a surrogate mother.
The gorilla care staff alternates round-the-clock shifts with Kindi. Because a gorilla mom goes about her days while the infant grasps onto her, a gorilla baby needs strong hands and arms. To mimic this behavior, staff members also wear a black furry smock reminiscent of mom’s coat and encourage Kindi to grasp onto it, as she would have done with her mother.
Keepers also mimic a mother gorilla’s behavior in other ways: lying down on the hay with Kindi, vocalizing, and imitating grooming, nest building and foraging. Keepers have already started moving around with Kindi on their backs. You can follow this fascinating progression while Kindi remains on view on a limited schedule as keepers introduce her to all gorilla exhibits indoors and out at Gorilla Forest. Visit Today at the Zoo for the latest exhibit times — always subject to change, of course.
The Next Steps for Kindi
The detailed process of introducing Kindi to her possible surrogates is in full swing. Kweli and Paki — the two adult female gorillas in Gorilla Forest that shared the social group with her mother and father (silverback Mshindi) — interact with Kindi through exhibit mesh or at a special “howdy panel,” a mesh panel adjacent to the off-exhibit nursery. A common interaction involves Paki reaching a finger through the mesh to touch Kindi’s head or watching her closely. As this process evolves, Kindi will likely have private bonding time with either Paki or Kweli. Keepers are now training Kindi to take her bottle through the mesh so that once she inhabits the same space as her surrogate, keepers can continue to feed her for several years. This will be a crucial milestone in her rearing and surrogacy.
It is the Zoo’s sincere hopes that Paki or Kweli will be Kindi’s surrogate mother so that she can stay in Louisville, but the Zoo is working in conjunction with others in the field to make the final determination. The Zoo is consulting with a team of AZA experts in gorilla management and hand rearing. Many of these experts have visited the Zoo, met with keepers, observed the rearing process and will continue to visit throughout these next important months to help make the decision that is best for Kindi and her future.
We usually seek your help in naming our newborn animals. This time, in recognition of their devotion and tireless caretaking, gorilla keepers were given the opportunity to name Mia’s offspring. Mia earned the nickname “squirrel” because of her playfulness, quickness and agility. Keepers chose to honor her by naming her infant ”Kindi” which means squirrel in Swahili. Kindi also rhymes with Mshindi, the name of her father.
SPECIES SURVIVAL PLAN
The Zoo’s accrediting body — the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) — issues a breeding recommendation through the organization’s Species Survival Plan (SSP) allowing Zoos to breed. Each endangered species has a dedicated SSP that manages just that species and offers recommendations based on the genetics of the managed population in North American Zoos.
Alongside this recommendation, Zoos receive a birth management guide, a kind of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” which covers conception to birth and, if needed as in this case, hand-rearing best practices. Everyone caring for Kindi studied this guide during the months building up to her birth and it is always within arms’ reach.
Western lowland gorillas are considered critically endangered with an estimated 100,000 remaining in the remnant wild. Due to habitat destruction their numbers continue to decline. Coltan mining in particular is impacting the gorilla population. Coltan is a black metallic mineral that is used in nearly every electronic device today including cell phones.
The Louisville Zoo partners with Louisville-based Eco-Cell and collects old cell phones to help reduce the need for coltan mining around gorilla habitats.
Visit louisvillezoo.org/ecocell for more information.
Follow Kindi’s Journey at Louisvillezoo.org/kindi brought to you by Baptist Health.