Chapter 5: Why You Should Never Flirt with Gorillas

After learning about the gorilla escape, I was kind of jazzed about gorillas. So the next day at the zoo, Scott asked Jennifer, the gorilla keeper, if I could help her feed while he was busy on his veterinary rounds.

We entered the gorilla enclosure through the back door, a heavy metal number that weighed a ton. If a gorilla somehow got out of his “room” he would not get past this door. We walked down a long hall, through another big metal door that ended in a long hallway lined with gorilla bedrooms.

Every night, at the same time, Jennifer opened the bedroom doors and all the gorillas came inside from the outdoor enclosure into their own rooms. Then she locked them in and fed them. In the morning, the pattern was reversed with Jennifer locking them out so she could clean their rooms.

“It’s a bit like room service,” I commented.

“You have no idea,” she said. “And I’m the bellboy, maid and dishwasher.”

“But you love it, right?” I asked.

She laughed, and rolled her eyes a little.

“Now this guy in here trashes his room every night. I have to do a total cleaning in here. Just like my ex-husband.” She laughed again.

Hmmm….I said.

“Let’s get the food,” she said and motioned for me to follow her out to the truck, closing each heavy door behind her.

I don’t know what I thought gorillas ate out of – maybe an over-sized salad bowl? So I was a little startled when she pulled a giant, powder blue laundry basket out of the back of the truck. It was full to the brim with lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables. Gorillas are vegetarians and need to eat a lot to maintain their body weight, but that was more veggies than I bought in a month.

“So between the six of them, they’ll eat all that?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed again.

“This is just for one gorilla,” she said, lugging the basket down to the first bedroom.

“Woah.” I grabbed the next basket in the truck and followed her in.

Once the food was in the bedrooms, Jennifer pulled the latch to open the outside doors. The gorillas came in quickly as if they’d been outside waiting for their tables to be ready.

I stood in the long hallway and could smell them in their bedrooms. Their scent was strong but not at all unpleasant. It was a musky, animal smell, but comforting, like the smell of horses.

I was standing there thinking about this when an ear-splitting, metallic boom shook the enclosure. I screamed and jumped. Had I just experienced my first earthquake?

Jennifer sighed and shook her head like an indulgent mother.

“He’s flirting with you,” she said.

“Wait, that was a gorilla?” It sounded like a sonic boom.

I peered into the bedroom where the sound had come from. A large male silver-back stared back at me. He was about 300 lbs. of bulging primate muscle. He looked at me with the most intense dark eyes.

“He’s staring at me. Is it rude for me to stare back?” I asked.

Jennifer laughed. This was clearly entertaining for her.

Suddenly he leaped away, ran around his room in a frenzy and then landed a crushing blow to the metal wall with his fist. My ears rang.

“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked, my hands pressed over my ears.

Jennifer shrugged. “You would think so, but apparently not.”

He did it again and I shrieked with surprise again. There was no getting used to that.

“Oh, he’s got it bad for you,” she said, chuckling.

“Great,” I said feeling my face get hot.

Another crash. I was starting to feel downright embarrassed. I moved away down the hall and helped Jennifer finish her chores.

“Just think of it as the gorilla equivalent of a guy winking at you,” she said.

“Hmmm,” I said, not at all sure that made it any better.

As we were packing up to go, the flirty gorilla started vocalizing. It had a keening quality that reminded me uncomfortably of pleading.

“Wow,” Jennifer said, grinning. “He rarely goes that far.”

I was mortified.

When we left the enclosure, we ran into, Scott, who had finished his rounds and was looking for me.

“So did you learn anything today?” he asked as we walked through the jungle-lined pathway across the zoo. The pea fowl were calling loudly from somewhere on the zoo grounds.

“Yes,” I said. “I am stunningly attractive…”

He looked at me quizzically.

“…to apes.”

 

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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.