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For those looking for nonaverage activity at the National Zoo today, there is one can’t-miss destination: the Great Ape House. First, there’s the newest adorable zoo baby, the tiny gorilla born Jan. 11 and recently discovered to be female. (She is yet unnamed while the zoo works up the requisite lather among the faithful, who will get to vote on several choices.) Mandara, the mom, is getting more comfortable showing her progeny off to visitors. She comes up to the glass, the small baby latched on to her prominent nipple.
“Is she nursing?,” asks 14-year volunteer Marsha Broadwell. “They like us to mark down when she’s suckling.”
Soon however, Baby Gorilla Doe is only a sideshow. There’s a scream. There is chasing. There is major teeth-baring.
To the untrained eye, the melee is exciting, loud, and totally awesome compared to sleepy red pandas who are supposed to be getting it on. Broadwell, who volunteers at the Great Ape House Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings, confirms this. “In my total involvement here, I’ve probably only seen a real fight maybe three or four times,” she says.
And then she bursts the bubble: This was not one of them. “Had these been chimpanzees, you would have seen a little bit of blood by now,” she says.
Zookeeper Erin Stromberg is even less impressed. She says the fight—-which she downgrades to more of a scuffle—-is pretty common. You might say average. Stromberg breaks the action down this way:
Kojo (the 7-year-old male) basically grazes the ankle of 14-year-old Kigali. “She’s a screamer,” says Stromberg, later adding: “I might characterize her as an insecure female.”
Kigali, in keeping with her character, let’s out a high-pitched squelch. The scream sets off the other gorillas, including Mandara, with baby attached. “Oh yeah, she was in there,” says Stromberg. “I had to check and make sure she didn’t lose the baby while it was happening.”
But all eyes are on Baraka, the silverback, the patriarch, the heavy. He moves around the perimeter of the scuffle, possibly trying to figure out which little punk got out of line. But he’s calmer than some silverbacks and within a matter of a few seconds, he’s eating and throwing hay; the rest of the group settles down for a snack as well.
Stromberg sums up the Great Ape House on a typical day: “It’s a soap opera around here.”
Photo by Mehgan Murphy/Smithonian’s National Zoo