'Break-dancing' gorillas: It's all in the family

As a baby, Zuri the gorilla used to entertain his keepers at the Woodland Park Zoo by dancing. Now, a generation later and a country apart,  Zola is the star of a YouTube break-dance video with more than 2 million views.

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The author's wife, Joan, with a young Zuri.

As a baby, Zuri the gorilla used to entertain his keepers at the Woodland Park Zoo by dancing. Now, a generation later and a country apart,  Zola is the star of a YouTube break-dance video with more than 2 million views.

As a former dancer, I often check out videos of new performers on the internet, and recently a break-dancing young gorilla at the Calgary Zoo caught my attention. Actually, he was not really break-dancing. He was just having a joyful time spontaneously stomping around in a puddle of water, part of his “enrichment” activities at the zoo. A smart human added a music score and the zoo turned these juvenile hi-jinks into a viral video with over two million hits to date.

Knowing that my wife Joan was enamored with gorillas, having served as a volunteer keeper-aide for these truly great apes at the Woodland Park Zoo for twenty years, I asked her to come have a look. One quick glance at the little guy busting a few moves and she announced,  “He looks like Zuri when he used to dance for me.” 

Joan helped to raise Zuri, an unusually handsome gorilla (at least to human eyes), at Woodland Park before he was shipped away at age 14 to Oklahoma, and then to the Bronx Zoo. There he became quite the lothario. As the studly silverback of the Bronx, where he still lives, Zuri, 28, has fathered 9 little gorillas, including, as it turns out, Zola, the Calgary YouTube sensation.

We saw Zuri in New York several years ago and his mojo still seemed to work just fine. A young female was giving him the eye, known in gorilla circles as the “estrus gaze.” He played it cool for a while, ignoring her and looking off into the distance, but after a while first she, then he following casually, disappeared into the “backstage” area of their enclosure.

Zuri’s mother, Nina, and father, Pete, are long-time Seattle residents, though both were born in the wild. Moving Zuri to another zoo was part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Gorilla Species Survival Plan, in which 52 North American zoos participate. Among other goals, the plan is meant to assure “the genetic and demographic health of the captive population,” and to partner “with other organizations that seek to improve the lives of wild and captive gorillas.”

According to Dr. Malu Celli of the Calgary Zoo, Zola was born in the Bronx in 2002 and has been at his current home for two years. His mom is Tuti, whose own parents are Tiny Tim and Tunko, both also Bronx gorillas. Two more of Zuri’s offspring also reside in Calgary — Shana, who lives in a bachelor group along with Zola, and a female named Dossi.

In keeping with his father’s character, Dr. Celli describes Zola as loving water, quite playful, and a “chilled gorilla.” Perhaps as a harbinger for his future with the ladies, she also describes him as having, “a very striking face, very different from the others – a very handsome chap.”

Gorillas are part of the great ape family, whose members include chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. They are an endangered species due to loss of their habitat to human encroachment, their slaughter for the bushmeat trade, and more recently as victims of the Ebola virus.

Gorillas living in the wild are in three populations in the tropical forests of Africa: Western Lowlands (the most populous and to which the members of the Woodland Park group belong), Eastern Lowlands, and — the most precarious in numbers — the Mountain Gorillas. Wild gorillas are no longer captured for American zoos, which rely instead on captive breeding programs.

In years past I had the great privilege of visiting the gorillas at the Woodland Park Zoo in their quarters. Pete, Zuri’s father, a silverback or mature male, is huge and quite amiable. When I wasn’t pouring his milk quickly enough into his mouth he reached through the bars of his cage and gently tipped the jug at a sharper angle to increase the flow, one of his fingers almost as large as my own hand.

A stranger is not supposed to make direct eye contact with a gorilla, as this apparently is quite rude by their rules of etiquette. When I first entered their home, I kept my eyes down fearing offending someone. However, this did not stop Vip, at the time the other silverback at the zoo, from hurling loud coughing “threat grunts” in my direction. Violet Sunde, the gorilla keeper on duty jokingly told me that I was “too macho” for Vip. I should be so lucky.

My favorite moment was with a toddler; a beautiful little girl named Akenji, who is now ten years old. As Violet gently held her in her arms, Akenji casually reached towards me and deftly removed my glasses. With great curiosity she looked directly at me and, as I stared back, we had a moment – at least I did. However distant the connection might have been, I knew that I was looking at a cousin from way, way back.

For more information on gorillas in zoos and the wild visit the Woodland Park Zoo's gorilla info page. Learn more about the Gorilla Species Survival Plan.


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