Forgive us for seeming a little primate-obsessed today, but the Dallas Zoo is giving us an awful lot of material. Hot on the heels of the news that a Twitter-savvy "rogue" spider monkey got loose this morning and was quickly captured, we heard back from Dr. Lynn Kramer, the deputy director for animal conservation at the zoo and the aquarium. We'd been in touch with the zoo last week about this report out of Cincinnati, which says that two female gorillas, "Madge" and "Shanta," will be sent to Dallas to "socialize" Patrick, a silverback who's been living alone for the past couple years. According to that report, the two females are "very socially savvy and highly skilled at how to approach a new silverback. They use a combination of non-confrontation, appropriate aggression, sexual persuasion and retreat to deal with a silverback's personality."
"Right now we're the bachelor pad," said Dallas Zoo spokesperson Susan Eckert, who we wish we could call for quotes far more often. She said the decision to bring in new females was a painstaking one: "So much planning goes into it." If the same was true of humans, she said, "people would probably be married a lot longer."
Kramer told us that the zoo has three male gorillas right now, two juveniles who live together and Patrick, who's in his own enclosure.
"He's been in a building with the other gorillas and so he's been able to see, hear, smell them," he said. "But he hasn't been directly in with them."
Turns out Patrick had an "altercation" with a couple females last year, and the Species Survival Program (SSP), which pairs animals together to allow them to socialize and breed, decided to move those females to another institution. But the SSP has decided the time is right to bring Patrick in with the female gorillas from Ohio, who were previously part of large troupe there. "They've been with other males and females and so they know how to act properly," Kramer said.
The females will arrive in Dallas tomorrow, but will immediately go into a 30-day quarantine to be checked for diseases and allow them to become acclimated to the zoo diet. Then they'll go into an adjacent cage to Patrick, with mesh between them, to give them time to get acquainted. At some point, the mesh will be lifted and all three of them will be allowed to be together, Kramer says. With any luck, they'll be on exhibit publicly in his enclosure by next year.
"What we're hoping is that Patrick accepts these females and that the three of them are happy in each other's presence and that they're able to do everything gorillas do," Kramer said. Meaning? "Eat in the same area, share the outdoor exhibit, and if all goes well, ultimately we'd like Patrick to receive a breeding recommendation from the oversight group in the SSP."
The real goal, he explained, is to allow the gorillas to live with a troupe of females in "kind of a harem situation," as silverback males do in the wild.
Bringing together new gorilla troupes is exactly the kind of thing the Species Survival Program is designed to do, Kramer told us, who likens it to "a computerized dating service." There are around 45 zoos in the country who have gorillas, about 360 of the animals in the United States in all. The SSP is used to make happy living situations for gorillas and other "large charismatic animals," he said, such as rhinos and elephants, though it's also used at times for birds and reptiles. It was put in place to monitor each animal's genetics, track bloodlines and reduce things like inbreeding. (Someone alert the Royal Family that this can be done. It's several hundred years too late, but still.)
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But wait, we asked, with some trepidation. How will Patrick be kept from breeding until his letter of recommendation comes though? Dr. Kramer both sighed and giggled simultaneously, if such a thing is possible. "I knew that was coming," he said. "It's OK. There are no dumb questions." The female gorillas are on contraceptives, he explained. "They will be for the foreseeable future."
Kramer is hopeful things will go better than the last time Patrick had female roommates. "Some of the gorilla behavior means not staring at each other and not trying to chase and bite and knowing when to be submissive and so forth," he said. "It's a learned behavior. Obviously the ones that were here earlier didn't react appropriately and I don't think Patrick did either. We're hoping it's much more amicable this time around."
There are several ill effects to prolonged isolation, Kramer said, which the zoo is trying to avoid for Patrick. Isolated primates, he said, "get into what we call sterotypic behavior sometimes, where they regurgitate their food more or pluck their hair or some kind of repetitive type of behavior, as opposed to more normal behaviors."
We asked if Patrick might be, say, lonely right now. "I think he's bored," Kramer said patiently. "I don't know about being lonely. He's got these two other males next to him. He's got a nice exhibit. He's got a lot of keepers who really like him and take good care of him. I just think he'd be happier if he was in with other gorillas."