Chapter 3: The Trouble with Teenagers… Even When They’re Gorillas

Scott and I walked up to the zoo nursery so I could take pictures for my own work. I was right in the middle of illustrating my first children’s book series called, Habitats of the World that was being published by Raintree-Heinemann Press and I needed lots of pictures of animals.

“We’re having trouble with some of the hooved stock,” Scott complained, his brow wrinkled, as I snapped a picture of a two-day old pronghorn antelope, its long legs wrapped around itself awkwardly.

“They keep going into labor prematurely and the young inevitably develop respiratory problems.”

“Is it a lack of surfactant?” I mused.

“Right, exactly,” he said.

We were playing the “practicing medicine without a license” game. It was a game we’d played our whole lives. Being raised in a medical family we had grown up with regular dinner table discussion of medical prognosis. So it often amused us now to discuss someone’s medical problems and come up with our own diagnosis. It wasn’t as farfetched now that Scott was a veterinarian and I had my master’s in anatomy and physiology, but it was still just for our own amusement.

I looked into another stall and peered into the dark eyes of the tiniest deer I’d ever seen. It was about the size of my cat. I stopped short and stared.

“It’s a mouse deer,” Scott said. “Cute, huh?”

It was beyond cute. Long chocolate brown fur, large dark eyes, delicate tiny, tongue. This was the picture in the dictionary, next to adorable.

“Go in with her, we’ll get your picture,” he said.

“Really?” I said, probably squealing like a six year old.

Okay I may have been jumping up and down too. I sat down gently next to this tiny creature in the straw. She sniffed my hand,. Her muzzle was as soft as velvet. The keeper snapped a picture.

“You wanna move in?” Scott asked.

“Yes, please,” I said, with as much dignity as I could muster lying in the straw. “Tell my kids I’ll see them again someday.”

“Okay,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’ll go get your ration of pellets.”

Then his radio crackled. He stopped and pulled it from his belt, his smile fading. A riot of voices poured out.

“Wait,” he yelled into the radio. “I don’t read you.”

He was striding quickly to the door. He stepped out into the open trying for better reception. I could hear someone’s voice raised to a panicked pitch repeating something to him. I left the stall reluctantly and followed him outside.

“What is it?” I asked, following him to the jeep.

“Gorilla’s out,” he said grimly.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

“Lemme get my camera!” I said, scrambling back to the door.

“No way,” he was shaking his head. “You stay here.”
“What? No! Please, Scott,” I pleaded, suppressing the urge to do more jumping up and down. I was definitely regressing.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling the tranquilizer gun out of the back of the jeep.
I suddenly could see how worried he was, so I squelched another whining plea. This was stressful for him. Not only was the gorilla at risk but if a zoo patron was injured it would be a disaster. He had to act quickly and decisively.

He looked at me for a brief moment and I nodded. Then he jumped into the jeep and drove off. I sat down on the planter, a cactus sticking me in the back and moped. As Scott might have noted, had he had time to comment, my lower lip stuck out enough for a small plane to land on.

Scott had once told me that if a chimpanzee gets out at the zoo, they immediately close the place down and usher people out. Chimps are the most aggressive of all the great apes. They are the only meat eaters of the group and as Jane Goodall taught us, have their own form of war-like aggression. Were gorillas that dangerous? I had no idea. But this clearly worried Scott.

Later, over dinner, I pressed him for every detail.
There had been a crowd. He had to abandon the zoo jeep and run to the gorilla enclosure.

“It was the enclosure with several sub-adult males in it,” he said.

I gave him a blank look.

“Teenagers,” he sighed.

“Gorilla’s have teenagers?”

“All primates do,” he said. “And they are just as cranky and obnoxious as human teenagers are, except they are unbelievably strong and can pitch you like a football if they feel like it.”

“They climbed up on each other’s shoulders in front of the viewing window and pushed one guy right out. He was sitting up on top of the enclosure, his legs dangling down, looking at all the patrons who were looking up at him. The people were watching him like it was a circus act,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not even sure that they realized he was out.”

“What did he do? Would he hurt people?”

“It’s unlikely,” Scott said, but I could see he wasn’t positive. There had been that gorilla at the D.C. zoo who got out of his enclosure and was startled by some patrons walking by and bit a toddler in a stroller.

“Gorillas aren’t usually aggressive unless they’re frightened.”
He smoothed his mustache down, something he did during contemplation.

“So, how on earth did you get him back in?” I was picturing nets and loud speakers and the little planes circling.

“Ahhh,” Scott sighed and leaned back in his chair. “He saw me running toward him with the tranquilizer gun….” He said slowly.

“Yes, and then?” I said, getting ready to poke him with my straw.

“Well, he saw me. He knows who I am. I’m the mean one who occasionally gives shots and of course he’s experienced the tranquilizer gun before. It’s not like we can get them to roll up their sleeves when they need vaccines.” He sighed. Any dreams he’s had of all the animals at the zoo loving him had vanished the first time he’d had to restrain one for a treatment. “Well… he took one look at the gun and he turned around and jumped back into the enclosure.”

My mouth opened but nothing came out. Then I laughed.

“Just too wild out here for him, I guess,” he said.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.