In Jacksonville, a 30-year-old mother gorilla immediately takes to the rejected baby.
Bulera might be called a baby gorilla whisperer.
On Feb. 27, the 30-year-old gorilla at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens was introduced as a potential surrogate mother to 5-month-old Gandai, whose biological mother Kumbuka had not shown sufficient care or interest in her baby. Bulera readily accepted the role.
“She was holding the baby within minutes and comforting her with soft vocal rumbles,” said JJ Vitale, zoo spokeswoman. “She carried her around the enclosure, cuddled with her, brought her into her nest to sleep and responded quickly to any cries. Even better, Gandai is smitten with her adoptive mother. ... The pairing with Gandai and Bulera is a joyful occasion and the two gorillas are bonding well."
Dan Maloney, the zoo’s deputy director, said he is optimistic.
“There’s no precedent for her and her mom Kumbuka, but surrogacy among gorillas is well-documented,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of advice about surrogacy and how to make it work.”
A backup plan was needed because of safety concerns about Kumbuka, who is deaf. She lost two infants at another zoo, likely because her hearing loss prevented her from noticing her babies’ distress calls. Jacksonville keepers intervened after Gandai’s birth when Kumbuka was observed incorrectly positioning the infant.
Since then, Gandai’s keepers took turns providing around-the-clock care but hoped their intervention was temporary. Kumbuka and the rest of the zoo’s Western lowland gorilla troop remained “in close proximity” to Gandai, interacting with her through a mesh barrier.
On Feb. 26, zookeepers attempted to reintroduce Gandai and Kumbuka. The baby “was placed on a soft pile of hay in a large family room in the gorilla building. Kumbuka was given access to the room and allowed to have free contact,” Vitale said. “Keepers were cautiously optimistic when Kumbuka eventually approached ... and showed some interest. Kumbuka was initially curious and was even observed holding the baby for a few minutes.”
But her interest waned.
“By the end of the day, Kumbuka was actively avoiding Gandai. She did not bring Gandai into her nest to sleep overnight. When keepers saw Kumbuka’s frustration rising the next morning with every approach from Gandai, they knew it was time to consider Plan B,” she said.
On Feb. 27 Kumbuka left Gandai’s room and Bulera was given access to the baby.
“Immediately, the keepers could tell this was a better fit,” Vitale said. “She is a confident and relaxed mother with a calm demeanor.”
Maloney said, “Bulera is a really good mom. She gives the baby enough space, lets the baby come to her.” The two are now spending most of their time together, he said.
Bulera has already raised two gorilla offspring — Madini, 22, and George, 4, who is fully weaned, independent and has a close relationship with his father and a playmate, Patty. Those relationships made Bulera available as a surrogate for Gandai, she said.
George, because of his young age, is the “wild card” in Bulera’s surrogacy of Gandai, Maloney said.
“He’s been treated like the little prince he is,” he said. “But he is at the age where adults will start disciplining him. How he reacts to the baby [is uncertain] ... So we’re taking it slow with the introductions [to other troop members.]”
Meanwhile, Kumbuka is spending time with a silverback named Lash.
“She is not showing any concern about the situation [with Gandai],” Vitale said. “Keepers are disappointed that Kumbuka was not interested in mothering Gandai, but glad that the two can continue to live in the same group and develop a relationship.”
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.