If you have not met the new mountain gorilla family on Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, I highly recommend a visit! Welcoming these new members of the Noah’s Ark family has been very exciting for all of us at the Skirball. We have had many questions from staff and visitors about the gorillas and how they fit into the harmony we have established on the Ark. So, I thought it would be nice to check-in with my old friend Jennifer Chatfield. We consulted with Jennifer, former gorilla keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo for over twenty-five years and, in my opinion, the undisputed queen of gorillas, during the design process for the gorillas. Now, as the family settles in, I thought it was time to call her up again to see if she would share more of her in-depth knowledge of these wonderful creatures.
What have you learned from the gorillas you worked with?
I’ve learned a lot from gorillas! First, I think that when working with any animal you must be quiet inside. Leave the stress of your commute, an argument with a co-worker, and all your other issues at the door. The gorillas have taught me to be more aware and to pay close attention to body language. Since their vocalizations are limited, they communicate with their actions. This has made me more aware of their desires and moods, and has made me a better reader of people, too.
What is something about gorillas that most people don’t know?
A lot of them are very ticklish and will laugh or giggle when you tickle their belly.
People often think of gorillas in a negative way because of films like King Kong. What would you like to change in people’s minds about gorillas?
In spite of their size and some impressive teeth, gorillas are very gentle. They tend to shy away from confrontation rather than fight. Even silverback gorillas (the lead male in a family group)—who get into territorial disputes—fight in a ritualistic manner and there usually aren’t too many serious injuries. Part of the beauty of being a gorilla is that if you stand up, charge, and beat your chest, it scares most interlopers off.
In what ways do gorilla families behave like human families?
While the makeup of a gorilla family is different than a usual human family—with one silverback, several females, and their offspring—there are strong bonds in the group. The silverbacks play a role in child-rearing, often playing gently with infants barely the size of the palm of their hand. Gorilla mothers carry their infants for the first few months, teaching them to crawl and play, behaving very much like human mothers. As with humans, there is a wide range of mothering skills and techniques. Some are worry warts, always holding the infant close while they start to explore the world; others are lackadaisical, giving the infants more freedom.
How do gorillas take care of each other?
Gorillas are loyal and protective, and a silverback will fight to protect his family. They travel and forage together, then rest together, often grooming other troop members.
What has been your most emotional moment in working with gorillas?
There were many, joyful and sad. Probably watching Cleo, who was the first L.A. Zoo gorilla to raise her own baby, turn out to be a wonderful mother. She couldn’t have done a better job with Kelley, who is now the troop silverback and a great father himself.
How do the gorillas behave with humans?
That depends a lot on the human! Gorillas tend to be wary of strangers. The males will display and chest-beat towards perceived threats. They are very intuitive and they read people very well and will trust those with whom they are familiar. As their primary caretaker, I was honored to be treated like one of the troop; different, but accepted nonetheless.
What is the most important lesson that gorillas can teach humans?
I think human parents can learn a lot about child-rearing from gorillas. I also feel humans have lost some of our awareness of the world around us in that we do not use our senses and perceptions to understand that something is dangerous or loving or scary or welcoming. Gorillas seem to sense right away who is good and who is not. I think the most important lesson is to live in your world—use it, but don’t destroy it. Gorillas are very peaceful creatures, very gentle. I think a world run by gorillas would be a pleasant place to live.
Special thanks to Jennifer for offering such insightful responses to my many questions. If you have questions of your own, you can comment here or join us on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30 for Last Weekends of the Month! Experts from the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Orangutan Conservancy, and the Jane Goodall Institute will be here to give Skirball visitors a hands-on presentation about apes.