With new digs and a new cast of characters, the primates at the Como Zoo are ready for prime time.
It’s an old joke: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? But there’s a fresh answer at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory: In a new $11 million exhibit.
Gorilla Forest opens Thursday with six new residents — plus one familiar face, the 525-pound silverback named Schroeder. The 13,000-square-foot habitat features new interiors and two new outside areas that make up the largest all-mesh gorilla enclosure in North America.
The renovation marks another step in the evolution of this urban zoo, which dates to 1897. The old exhibit halls that consisted of little more than prison cells are gone, replaced over time by more natural environments.
“The changes in zoos have been amazing,” said Michelle Furrer, director and campus manager of the zoo and conservatory. “The old zoos were just cages. Now, as we’ve learned more about habitat, they are much more of an immersive experience. That’s better for the animals and the people.”
Six new gorillas have been relocated from other zoos. They have been split into two groups with separate indoor and outdoor homes. In the “family” group, Schroeder, who has been a Como Park mainstay since 1991, has been joined by three females — Alice, Dara and Nne (pronounced Eenie) — in hopes that they eventually will mate.
The other side of the exhibit is home to what the trainers are calling the “bachelors” — Virgil, Samson and Jabir — three related males that came as a package deal.
Which raises another question: How do you ship gorillas from one zoo to another?
“FedEx,” said Allison Jungheim, one of the senior zookeepers.
The gorillas rode in the same cargo planes that were carrying the doodad you bought off eBay and thingamabob you ordered from the Home Shopping Network. The only difference was that Jungheim traveled with them to make sure the animals (which were not sedated for the trip) were OK. And the fact that the zoo had to send its own truck to pick them up at the airport because there are limits to what FedEx drivers are willing to carry up to the front door.
On the shy side
The image of King Kong notwithstanding, apes can be rather timid creatures. Getting the gorillas to check out their new home was challenging.
The animals were kept in quarantine after arriving at the zoo, a standard practice. When it came time to acclimate them to the exhibit area, the keepers opened the door from the holding area — but the gorillas wouldn’t budge.
“They just sat there and looked out the door,” Furrer said.
The keepers have a strict rule against prodding the apes to do something that makes them uncomfortable.
“We won’t do anything negative,” Jungheim said. “We’re working very hard on building trust with them. This [exhibit] is an unknown space to them, and they’re intimidated by that.”
Prodding might be out, but bribery still works. At least it did on the second attempt to coax the animals out into their new habitat. The keepers set up a gorilla buffet, consisting of banana tree leaves, bamboo and bowling-ball-sized rubber balls smeared with peanut butter.
The gorillas didn’t rush out, but they did eventually succumb to the siren call of the treats. Once they were out — and had licked all the peanut butter off their fingers — they took to exploring their new digs.
The new exhibit has three times the outdoor space and more than twice the indoor area of the old one. Where the former space featured a lot of concrete, the new one lives up to its “Forest” name with an abundance of vegetation. Gone also is the moat that surrounded the old exhibit.