Gorilla relocation to be a family affair

Jack Szwergold jack at royaljournal.com
Thu Jun 14 01:41:19 EDT 2001

Gorilla relocation to be a family affair

By William Mullen
Tribune staff reporter
June 13, 2001

Lincoln Park Zoo will begin to empty its doomed Great Ape
House next week by sending away one of its two gorilla
families, a move that eventually will leave the zoo without
gorillas for the first time in 72 years.

Most, if not all, of the animals will return to Chicago, but
probably not until 2005 when the zoo's new, much-expanded
ape house is expected to open.

Leaving Tuesday in an air-conditioned semitrailer truck will
be three adult female apes and their leader, Kwan, a young
male who last year co-starred in "Return to Me," a movie
that had scenes filmed at the zoo. They will travel 14 hours
to a new home at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C.

One of the females going with Kwan is Kumba, who in 1970 was
the first captive-born gorilla at Lincoln Park and one of
the first in the world. She has never been away from the

Sometime next year, the zoo's remaining gorillas, a much
larger family now headed by Frank, an aging, 37-year-old
silverback male, will be transferred to the Louisville Zoo
in Kentucky. Lincoln Park is also looking for a facility
that can take its six chimpanzees.

When the last of Frank's group leaves, it will be the first
time that the zoo has not had a gorilla to show off to
visitors since 1930, when it acquired a wild-born toddler
named Bushman.

Bushman grew to be a legendary giant, the largest ape in
captivity, bringing international fame to the zoo. Ever
since, Lincoln Park's reputation has been inextricably
linked to its gorillas, especially in the 1970s and 1980s,
when it was known as the most successful gorilla breeding
zoo anywhere.

Now the zoo is raising $25 million to raze its old ape
house, opened in 1976, and put up a new one whose features
will draw on the wealth of new knowledge about chimp and
gorilla life that has been amassed in the last 25 years.

"I'm in denial," said Kristen Lukas, the zoo's primate
curator, about Kwan's group leaving in a few days. "It's so
hard to think about them moving, but we are planning to
build something really special here."

The zoo was fortunate, she said, that the closure of their
old ape house coincides with other zoos needing animals to
populate new gorilla habitats.

"Other zoos that have had to move their gorillas out while
building new facilities have had to move them piecemeal,"
said Steve Thompson, Lincoln Park Zoo's vice president of
conservation and science. "They couldn't find anyplace with
space for a whole family, so they had split their groups up,
scattering each member to a different institution.

"That is tough. It's hard on animals to go through
introductions to new families, then bring them home a few
years later to a whole new reintroduction with their old
family group."

Experience with moving

Because of Lincoln Park's past breeding success, the zoo has
moved whole gorilla families before, giving them up to other
zoos permanently. That experience will help next Tuesday
when keepers will start the day for Kwan and his harem as
normally as possible.

"Gorillas become upset when their routines are disrupted,"
said Lukas, "so next Tuesday will start like any other day.
One of the first things we have our animals do every day is
come to the open mesh walls at the rear of their living
spaces to get a quick health check by keepers."

As each animal presents its arms as it is trained to do in
the morning checkups, the keepers Tuesday will administer a
powerful anesthesia.

While the animals sleep, veterinarians will take blood
samples, listen to heart and lungs, do tuberculosis tests
and radiographs of their chests, make sure all are up to
date on vaccinations, and do dental exams and teeth

Once that is done, the sleeping animals will be shifted onto
gurneys and wheeled out of the building to transport cages.
The cages will not be put on the waiting truck until each
wakes up.

"We want to make sure they're awake from the anesthesia and
are all right before they leave," said Lukas.

To ease the strain of the move, keeper Roby Elsner will
travel with the gorillas and stay in South Carolina for six

Kwan and his harem are to arrive in the wee hours June 20.
They will walk out of their cages into a vast, lush, densely
planted outdoor habitat covering three-quarters of an acre.

Living outside might be a problem, at least initially, for
two of the females, Kumba and Kowali, 23. Both have spent
most of their lives indoors and only grudgingly go out at
Lincoln Park when they are given the chance.

"Gorillas are neophobic, afraid of the new," said Lukas. "It
won't surprise me if it takes some time for Kumba and Kowali
to get used to being outdoors."

If they want to be inside, they can use Riverbanks'
5,000-square-foot indoor gorilla habitat‹though it is
expected all of the gorillas eventually will prefer

"Our climate is such that our animals can remain outside if
they want about 355 days a year," said Satch Krantz,
Riverbanks' zoo director.

A first for Riverbanks zoo

Excitement has been building for several months in South
Carolina for the arrival of Kwan and his group, as
Riverbanks has never had great apes before, Krantz said. The
zoo was happy to get the gorillas‹even on a temporary basis.

"Right now, it would be impossible for us to start with a
breeding group of a male and adult females," said Steve
Wing, mammal curator at Riverbanks. "It will take years
before we get to that point, so this is a great way for us
to get our exhibit started."

After Kwan and his group leave, Lincoln Park keepers plan to
bring in another breeding male gorilla. The plan is to split
Frank's large family of 11 in two before they move to
Louisville Zoo's new gorilla park‹a move spurred by the
family patriarch's advancing age.

"Assuming our new building opens in 2005, there's a good
chance Frank won't come back, that he'll be deceased by
then," Lukas said. "In that case, we'll recombine the two
groups and bring them back here as one."

Frank is not the only one to be getting up in years. Lukas
also singled out two females, Helen, 43, and Debbie, 36, an
especially prized "auntie" who, childless herself, has
lovingly raised several infants rejected by their mothers.

However many come back, the building they will return to
will bear little resemblance to the current one. That
circular, three-story structure was state-of-the-art when it
opened in 1976 and is one of the most successful great-ape
facilities in history, but it is badly outdated now.

Habitat improvements

The most noticeable difference will be in the gorillas'
indoor habitats, now a serviceable jumble of steel climbing
poles, ropes, concrete platforms and floors covered in
straw. The new building's living spaces will be filled with
realistic artificial trees, vines and forest streams to
suggest to visitors the actual wilderness where gorillas

More important, the new building will have outdoor yards for
each ape family, allowing the animals to spend far more time
outside. The facilities also will give keepers and
scientists more access to the animals.

"It's going to be a great day for the zoo to get the animals
back to our new facility," said Lukas. "But first they have
to leave so we can build it, and Kwan's group will be the
first to go. Tuesday is going to be a big day for those

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