Baby Gandai was born about five months ago to her mother, Kumbuka. The Western lowland gorilla had lost two infants before arriving in Jacksonville, and the zoo believes her hearing problems were largely to blame.
“I believe that the outcome may have been different, had Kumbuka been able to hear her infant crying, and get those cues to change her own behavior,” Fenn said.
The zoo worked extensively with Kumbuka ahead of Gandai’s birth to train her for motherhood, but she started carrying the baby in unsafe ways almost immediately, so the zoo intervened and has been hand-rearing Gandai since soon after birth.
While keepers were providing round-the-clock care for Gandai, they kept her in close contact with Kumbuka and the rest of the troop. They also worked non-stop to simulate the care Gandai would get, if she had been with her mother.
"We have kept her on a human 24 hours a day for the entire duration of that assisted rearing phase. The goal of that is to treat the infant as much as a mother gorilla would. So, mother gorillas don't set their infants down and leave them, so the gorilla infant has been on a person for the whole five-month period," Fenn said.
That included helping Gandai build strength by the keepers moving on hands and knees while wearing a special vest that the infant could cling to.
Gandai and Kumbuka were brought together Tuesday without any barriers for the first time since the baby was taken for hand-rearing. Initially, Kumbuka showed some interest and even held Gandai, but by the end of the day, her interest waned and she was actively avoiding the baby and pushing her away. When given the opportunity to leave Gandai's room Wednesday morning, Kumbuka did so willingly, leaving the baby behind.
"Because Gandai was doing everything correctly, we didn't want her to experience that rejection for too long, and then have that negatively influence the next step, should we have to go to that. And additionally, we were somewhat concerned that Kumbuka's frustration with the situation may escalate to physical harm of Gandai, so we made the difficult decision to move to our 'Plan B,', which was surrogacy with Bulera," Fenn said.
The zoo had been preparing for the possibility that the reunion wouldn’t work out as hoped, so they immediately brought in Bulera, who has successfully mothered two children and who has consistently showed interest in Gandai through the hand-rearing process. The zoo officials say Bulera was instantly attentive to Gandai when they were put together, and has shown even more interest than Kumbuka did. Not only that, but zoo officials say Gandai is “smitten” with Bulera.
The pair remains under the close supervision of keepers, and Fenn says they’ll allow the pair to tell them when they’re ready to move forward.
“Once Bulera and the infant have had sufficient time to form a really strong bond and develop a relationship where Bulera is very protective of Gandai, then we’ll move forward to adding other individuals into their group very slowly and very cautiously, moving forward,” Fenn said.
If Kumbuka had looked like she struggled with separation from Gandai, reunion with the broader troop could have been in question; however, however zoo officials say they’re hopeful the larger group can ultimately come together. Kumbuka has shown she likes to interact with young gorillas that are a little older.
“We hope in the future that she will also do that with Gandai and they will have a relationship, even though at this point, she is choosing not to mother,” Fenn said.
Kumbuka is content and spending time with silverback gorilla Lash. Zoo officials say she does not appear to be concerned about the situation.
Overall, while zoo officials say they are disappointed that “Plan A” did not work out, they are cautiously optimistic that “Plan B” will be successful.
“In the big picture, we are really pleased with the outcome of the infant. She is going to be properly socialized in a gorilla group, she will grow up as normal as any gorilla could, and Kumbuka will continue to get the social opportunities with all of the different group members, including her daughter,” Fenn said.
If things do turn, there is a “Plan C” mapped out as well involving sending Gandai to another Association of Zoos & Aquariums accredited zoo for surrogacy, where she can join a natural social group. Fenn says, at this point, it does not look like that will be necessary.