A male western lowland gorilla was born at the Smithsonian National Zoo on April 15, the first born at the the zoo in nine years.
Dubbed Moke (Mo-KEY), the baby gorilla is the adorable offspring of 15-year-old Calaya, a first-time mom, and 26-year-old father Baraka.
"The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole," Meredith Bastian, the zoo's curator of primates, said in a statement regarding Moke's birth.
After the zoo confirmed that Calaya was pregnant in fall 2017, they began to train her to be a mom. This was done largely to ensure that Calaya would care for the infant instead of potentially abandoning it. Keeper Melba Brown determined that Calaya learned best by watching other gorillas train, and taught her through that method. Caralya quickly picked up the basic skills of infant-rearing, which allowed the zookeepers to train Calaya to do other things to help them monitor her progress, including ultrasounds and urinating on command to check Calaya's hormone levels.
Brown worked to reinforce these lessons by showing Calaya images of other mother gorillas and even giving her a plush gorilla toy to gently touch and kiss. The plush toy was placed next to Calaya's breasts by keepers for her to "nurse."
"The primate team's goal was to set Calaya up for success as best we could, given that she is a first-time mother," Bastian said. "Doing so required great patience and dedication on the part of my team, and I am very proud of them and Calaya."
The work seems to have paid off. Not long after Calaya gave birth to Moke, which translates as "junior" or "little one" in the Lingala language, she was cradling her newborn in her arms, and, as the videos show, kissing the tiny gorilla and nursing it with apparent ease. Lingala is the Bantu language spoken throughout the northwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where western lowland gorillas are found in the wild.
If Calaya hadn't taken to motherhood, the zoo was prepared for that eventuality as well. Calaya resides in a mixed-sex gorilla troop with Baraka, an adult female named Mandara and a sub-adult female named Kibibi. Keepers prepped Mandara, an experienced mom of six, to act as a foster mother to Calaya's baby, just in case. Mandara was responsible for raising Baraka, Moke's father, as a foster offspring shortly after his birth.
Two other males, silverback brothers named Kwame and Kojo, live together in a bachelor troop.
"This infant’s arrival triggers many emotions — joy, excitement, relief — and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off," Brown said. "We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together."
The zoo's Great Ape House is indefinitely closed while Calaya nurses and bonds with Moke, and when it re-opens, both will be available to the public. Calaya, however, will have her choice of rooms, and some of those are away from prying (public) eyes. In the meantime, the zoo's other gorillas are still out and about for the public to see, and a keeper will be around the enclosure at 11:30 a.m. EST every day to answer any ape questions visitors might have.