Goma’s got his work cut out for him.
The 31-year-old silverback Western lowland gorilla has to manage four lady gorillas. So it’s no wonder the 475-pound guy tucks himself into bed at exactly 5:10 p.m. every day and snoozes until morning.
Those same ladies gave their leader his space during breakfast on a June morning at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, though 45-year-old Roxie was able to sit somewhat close to the big guy. It’s a gorilla win, as Goma was brought to the zoo in 2016 to complete the typical troop of one male and several females.
“It’s really cute. He’s sweet and gentle with her,” said Primate World Keeper Amy Tuchman. “He’s become really relaxed around them. And they kind of feed off that energy from him.”
As keepers rain down veggies, including lettuce, kale, corn, bell peppers, tomatoes and onions, into their forested outdoor living quarters, the herbivorous apes slowly begin to dine.
“They all have their personal-space bubble,” Tuchman said. “They’re not social groomers like other primates. They don’t touch much.”
There’s 29-year-old Kwisha, who slowly gathers and stores away produce in her arms. It’s normal behavior for her, as she was bottom-ranking in the troop for many years, and had to learn to be scrappier than the other girls.
“She’s kind of the oddball of the group,” Tuchman said. “She marches to the beat of her own drum, which we love about her.”
In the meantime, 41-year-old Juju has thrown an old boot on her broad back as she searches for delicious food to consume. It’s a security blanket for the 216-pound gal who loves onions. Sometimes she even manages to get three boots on her frame. On this morning, when the boot falls to the ground for a moment, a suspicious chipmunk comes a bit too close, causing the gorilla to snatch up her boot in a hurry before ol’ Chippy can steal it.
Gathering the troops
Because the gal pals went without a male figurehead for a couple of years, Juju rose to the top. There was some girl social drama, but the girls respected her. It’s been an adjustment for her to relinquish top-dog duties and accept Goma, and for Goma to figure out his responsibilities, as previously he’d only lived with males.
Today, they’re a cohesive troop, though that doesn’t stop Juju from challenging Goma every now and then, like when he wants to come into a space where she doesn’t want him. It begins with a stare down, and potentially turns into a little chase, but rarely does it turn physical.
“Most of the time, he’s the one who walks away with a scrape or a scratch, or they might come away with a patch of hair,” Tuchman said. “He’s had to learn. The girls will gang up on him and put him in his place. He’s learned to respectfully maneuver around them and ask them to do things in a way that doesn’t escalate to those chases.”
Days of our gorilla lives
Asha, 29, who’s also Juju’s daughter, will hug each keeper when they arrive in the morning. She runs to the window and places her palms on the glass around each person. She also says goodnight in the same way.
“She’s the peacemaker of the troop,” Tuchman said. “She’s the social glue.” After good wishes are exchanged, the drowsy gorillas get their morning greens and medicines, followed by a second breakfast, an early lunch and then lunch. Afternoons look like training sessions and one-on-one time with the keepers, who get a chance to look at the gorillas up close, take temperatures, check their teeth and give vaccines, if needed.
Goma also voluntarily does cardiac training, including blood-pressure training and EKG training, as cardiac disease is common among great apes.
Chill or not?
Definitely chill. Most gorillas are peaceful, calm animals who like everything to be quiet. And Goma isn’t afraid to let keepers know when they need to simmer down. First, he gives them “the look,” Tuchman said, and if they aren’t paying attention, he’ll hit a log to tell them to hush.
Future ‘Jeopardy’ contestants?
Maybe. Tuchman estimates their intelligence level as similar to an 8-year-old’s. Usually, orangutans use tools, but Kwisha has become particularly adept at figuring out how to turn the tree boughs they receive throughout the day into tools to help her with puzzle feeders and other enrichment items. And Goma lives for his one-on-one time with keepers. He loves to learn new things, and every once in a great while, his serious face relaxes. “He has times where he gets into silly moods, and he’s really playful,” Tuchman said. “You get glimpses of when he lets his guard down. He gets goofy and laughs and will spin around.”