Why Zookeepers Don't Want To Touch Seattle's Newborn Gorilla | KUOW News and Information

Why Zookeepers Don't Want To Touch Seattle's Newborn Gorilla

Nov 20, 2015

Zookeepers have noticed that Nadiri, a gorilla at the Woodland Park Zoo, has been restless at night and walking around more. For two weeks, they’ve watched her on closed-circuit television, waiting for signals that her baby is ready to arrive.

Nadiri, a 19-year old, first time mother, was due on Thursday. Her minders are hoping to be hands off at this birth – to give mother and child the time they need to bond.

Update: Baby Gorilla Is Born, But Mom Walks Away

“If we never have our hands on this infant, never have to handle it in any way, I would consider that a huge success for all of us,” said Harmony Frazier, a senior veterinary technician at the Seattle zoo.

At the very least, they hope it goes better than Nadiri’s own birth.

Nadiri’s traumatic birth in February 1996 – and what happened after – tugged Seattle heartstrings. Woodland Park Zoo received 3,000 submissions for baby names. Long lines formed to watch baby Nadiri at the zoo nursery. Bruegger’s Bagels held a press conference to financially adopt the newborn and lavished the baby gorilla with diapers and formula and toys.

Zoo employees remember it as a special time. They also hope this birth goes more smoothly.

Harmony Frazier, a senior veterinary technician, holds a photo of Nadiri, the gorilla. Frazier hand-raised Nadiri for the first eight to nine months of her life at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo.
Credit KUOW Photo/Posey Gruener

Nadiri’s mother Jumoke went through 40 hours of labor. Things progressed well at first, Frazier said, but after six hours of pushing, Jumoke stopped trying.

Watching from afar, zookeepers realized they had to get involved. They called a team from Swedish Hospital to assist the birth. Jumoke went under anesthesia and obstetricians suctioned out baby Nadiri.

“Her head was a little pointy,” Frazier said. Nadiri was also large – 5 pounds, 5 ounces. Gorillas are typically about 4 pounds at birth.

Related: UW Surgeon Performs His First Gorilla Surgery

“She started breathing well within half an hour,” Frazier said. “I took her up to the nursery that we have in the hospital and we started feeding her. The neonatologist, Dr. French, stayed with me that night. I said, ‘Please, don’t leave me. I want to be sure that everything is OK.”

The next morning, Frazier began to introduce Nadiri to Jumoke. But it didn’t go well.

Frazier believes that Jumoke was traumatized and confused by her birth experience. When zookeepers would present Nadiri to Jumoke, Jumoke would look at her but wouldn’t pick her up.

“She was so nervous from what had happened the night before, she didn’t understand that she had given birth to her, because she was asleep, so she did not know what she was expected to do.”

Bonding was further impeded when Jumoke’s partner – Nadiri’s dad – died two weeks later.

Frazier, an animal infant specialist who had raised more than 100 zoo babies, stepped in to hand-raise Nadiri in the zoo nursery.

Frazier and her team took care of Nadiri for 24 hours a day, feeding her on demand and changing her diapers – much like a human infant. In those early months, Frazier slept with the infant gorilla, waking up when she stirred.

Nadiri was “a wonderful dark infant,” Frazier said. She giggled and made eye contact. She played with toys and motored around on the ground. Each day, the zookeepers would introduce Nadiri to the other gorillas. Still, Nadiri would cling – literally - to her human keepers. That was important for her to build strength but they wanted her to transfer attachment.

“With gorillas, you want them to cling to you to build strength,” Frazier said. The keepers wore dark fleece vests to mimic gorilla hair and give the baby something to grip. “You’re walking around, and the baby is clinging to your front or to your back. And they get strong that way.”

But Nadiri couldn’t live with the zookeepers forever.

Gorilla keeper Stephanie Payne-Jacobs holds the extension bottle. Woodland Park Zoo keepers hope that they won't have to lay hands on the baby gorilla that is expected to be born Thursday.
Credit Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

“Gorillas interact vocally in a way that we can’t replicate and understand,” Frazier said. “They need the smell; they need the sounds; they need to hear the other gorillas interacting. It’s really important that they get that right from the beginning.”

The zoo turned to Nina, a female gorilla in the enclosure.

“Nina took care of her infants, she was very patient with them, very responsive to their cries and their needs,” Frazier said. “You could just see it – she was very calm.”

On visits to the enclosure, Nina allowed baby Nadiri to take her arm and walk around with her.

And then, when Nadiri was eight or nine months old, she reached a milestone.

“I remember the day when Nina decided she wanted to leave and go outside,” Frazier said. “Nadiri went screaming after Nina. That was a perfect breakthrough.

“It was such a relief. It was, ‘She understands where she needs to be, and we did OK. We got her back in time.’”

(Nina died this spring. She was 47.)

Nadiri’s name means “rare,” which is fitting. Her father, Congo, was captured in the wild in the 1960s in Cameroon, and he’s the only “founder animal” from that region. Gorillas stopped being captured in the wild after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. 

Congo moved through several zoos before ending up in Seattle. Days before he died, of an apparent heart attack, Frazier presented tiny Nadiri to Congo. She said the gorilla dad acknowledged his daughter with a contented grunt.

“She was his one and only offspring, so she’s really, really special,” Frazier said. “It really exemplifies how special she is genetically. And in turn, her baby will be also.”

Zookeepers hope this baby will be delivered naturally. Frazier will be present for the birth, and some of the same obstetricians who delivered Nadiri are on call this time, too. But Frazier hopes they won’t be needed. Ideally, she said, the zookeepers would watch the birth unfold from a distance, on closed-circuit TV.

Nadiri’s baby’s father is Vip, 36. He’s a 395-pound silver-back gorilla known for being a doting dad. This baby will be his seventh child.