Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October brings milestones for four famous gorillas

 The concept of a legendary gorilla didn’t die with the iconic Willie B. Ivan, the silverback who became a figure of national interest when he arrived at Zoo Atlanta after 27 years as the “shopping mall gorilla,” has his 16th anniversary in his adopted city this month. Kuchi, the mother who astonished the zoological community by rearing a rare set of twins herself, turned 26 on October 10. Her celebrated offspring, Kali and Kazi, turn 5 on October 31.

“Gorillas have been a flagship species for the Zoo ever since Willie B., but events like Ivan’s anniversary or Kali’s and Kazi’s birthday remind us of the deep level of interest, empathy and love our collection inspires in the community,” said Dwight Lawson, PhD, Deputy Director. “Now that western lowland gorillas are critically endangered, it’s more important than ever that our individuals serve as ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild.”

Ivan’s story is one of Zoo Atlanta’s most memorable happy endings. Born in Africa in 1962, he was captured as an infant and sold to the owners of a department store in Tacoma, Wash., where he lived for nearly three decades in a solitary indoor enclosure. By the mid 1990s, the silverback’s living conditions had inspired a highly-publicized movement for his relocation, prompting Ivan’s owners to donate their celebrity tenant to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Leadership in the care and study of western lowland gorillas were already trademarks for Zoo Atlanta, with the world-class Ford African Rain Forest having opened to national acclaim just six years earlier. Recognizing the importance of giving Ivan the opportunity to become a social gorilla and with the recommendation of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), Woodland Park Zoo placed Ivan on permanent loan to Zoo Atlanta in October 1994.

Now 47, Ivan lives with a female companion, Kinyani, 27. He is one of the Zoo’s most recognized and beloved individuals, widely known for his characteristic disdain of cold weather and for his paintings, which he “signs” with a thumbprint. Even after 16 years, his popularity with his original fan base remains undiminished. Zoo Atlanta receives letters, emails, calls and even Facebook posts every year from Ivan’s friends on the West Coast.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, juvenile twins Kali (male) and Kazi (female) were a Halloween surprise for keepers reporting to work the morning of October 31, 2005. In the days and months following the births, Kuchi surprised experts worldwide by rearing both infants independently – a feat no other gorilla has ever accomplished – a distinction she still holds. Today, the 26-year-old has just one busy infant to supervise: Henry, born May 22, 2010. While he’s not yet old enough to roughhouse with Kali and Kazi and their half-siblings Macy Baby and Gunther, both 4, the youngsters will be ready playmates once their baby brother is allowed outside Kuchi’s famously protective grip.

Zoo Atlanta is home to the nation’s largest collection of western lowland gorillas, with 23 individuals living in distinct social groups. In addition to Ivan, the Zoo also houses three other gorillas over the age of 45: Shamba, 51, Ozzie, 49, and Choomba, 49.

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