As a new caregiver at the Gorilla Foundation it’s hard to know what to expect from the first few months of training. You understand your job title (gorilla caregiver) and your supposed role, but there’s really no way of understanding what you’ll really be doing until your training begins.
For the first few weeks you have to tread lightly on the facility grounds making sure to keep your distance from the gorillas. Though you rarely see or hear the gorillas, they are constantly watching you. Half intrigued, half suspicious, Ndume kept me in my place by barking or chest slapping at me to show me who the real silverback of the property was. But as he became more familiar with my presence, and the fact that I would be sticking around for quite some time, he allowed me to move closer to his yard. It had taken me about a month, but I was finally able to spend some “quality” time with Ndume just yards away from his outdoor enclosure. This didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. For the first week or two he would gallop past me in a display and show his aggressive stance while I had to do my best to remain calm, not make eye contact, and to act as if there wasn’t a 425 lb. silverback gorilla (with the strength of five men mind you) trying to get my attention. Luckily this all passed quite quickly and within a couple of weeks he barely paid me any mind. I must admit, however, that all of the attention had felt kind of nice and now I was feeling more like an observer than a participant. But with Ndume’s newfound comfort came the ability to feed him some of his daily meals, a truly special experience.
Much like myself, Koko and Ndume live for their meals. Every day they receive beautiful meals prepared by our caregivers and volunteers using fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and other special treats. I don’t eat nearly as well as Koko and Ndume so you can imagine the pleasure they derive from every meal. Feeding them their meals give you quite a bit of leverage because there’s not much they will let stand between them and their food, not even a brand new caregiver. At first I stayed at a distance (but within eyesight) as another caregiver did the feeding. Ndume reacted well enough and everyday I would inch closer and closer. By the second week I was able to feed him some of his more special items through the mesh of a small window and by the third week I could deliver an entire meal myself. Now as if the rest of the training hadn’t been exciting enough, the feeling of dropping a piece of fruit directly into a gorilla’s mouth is utterly irreplaceable. Ndume’s head takes up the entire window!
After I started feeding Ndume his meals regularly he stopped worrying so much about my presence. I could be within feet of him at any given moment and he would remain calm. This is not to say that he was completely comfortable with me for he would still occasionally give me impressive displays to remind me (as if I’d forgotten) that he’s the one in charge. But now, more and more often, he would let out an affectionate ‘purr,’ almost hesitantly as though he didn’t think I deserved one just yet. In fact the term ‘purr’ can be quite deceiving, because the first time I heard the word used in this context I thought it was a noise made out of anger, more like a low lion’s growl. But when you hear a full-grown silverback gorilla ‘purr’ like a cat, you can’t help but feel good about your work.
It had taken me a little over 3 months to become fully trained and even then Ndume hadn’t completely opened up to me. He was comfortable with me performing all the necessary caregiver duties, but he still hadn’t fully accepted me as a person.
Now, some 5 months after my first day, I sit in the yard with Ndume on a warm summer day and hear two claps; the sign that he wants to play ‘chase’ and he wants to play now. I get up and begin running the border of the yard. Ndume lets out another chest slap, only this time I know it’s a playful gesture, quite different from the chestslaps I was receiving months prior. As he gallops across the yard and I run after him he looks back at me with a smile and I can’t help but think, ‘I’ve made a new friend.’