Baby gorilla makes surprise appearance at Prague Zoo

Photo: archive of Prague Zoo

Prague Zoo is celebrating the unexpected appearance of a baby gorilla, born to 40-year-old female Shinda who for long years was unable to have young. Overnight Shinda and her baby have gained celebrity status drawing hundreds of visitors to the Gorilla Pavilion. I went along to see the latest addition to the gorilla troupe and asked curator Vit Lukáš how it all came about.

Photo: archive of Prague Zoo
“We didn’t know that Shinda was pregnant. It was really a big surprise because usually we know about pregnancies in our gorilla group. The reason we failed to detect the pregnancy is that she had had problems with her cycle and with getting pregnant because of a contraception implant she had when she came to us. We tried to find the implant but were not successful. We did everything possible, a lot of examinations, but to no avail. So, there was a long period when she was unable to get pregnant or was losing her babies. We had practically given up hope, but then she surprised us. It is good news for us, but above all for her because she really wanted to be a mother, we could see that every time there was a baby in the group.”

So this is her first young. How old is she?

“Yes, this is her first baby and she is 24, will be 25 in June. It is not normal for a gorilla female to have her first baby at this age, but it is not exceptional either because for example our oldest gorilla who is now 44 had her first delivery at 40. So it is possible to have a baby at this age, but it is not common because usually gorillas start having babies at the age of 8 or 9.”

So there’s a chance she can have more babies in the years to come?

“Yes, gorillas in human care have babies until the age of 45 ,so we are hoping she can have maybe four more babies….”

So what happened last weekend? When did you realize she was giving birth? Does the rest of the troupe behave differently?

“We didn’t know that Shinda was pregnant, we had practically given up hope, but then she surprised us.”

“Shinda started delivering in the glass exposition, so we closed them off as we do every day to clean the place and feed them, but this time we let them stay inside and kept the possibility to separate her from the group in case of serious problems. We started watching her, monitoring the contractions and the intervals between them….”

Could you get close up?

“We were behind the bars, but we could observe her from several meters – two to four meters – and she was delivering in front of us for about 5 hours. It started at 8 am and she gave birth at 12.48 I think. It seemed a long time to us and we were nervous because she had previously lost babies, so it was incredible to her give birth to a healthy baby.”

She is lying in front of us now and hugging the baby – do you know if it is a boy or a girl?

“We think it is a boy, but we are not sure yet because we only saw it on camera. We need her help in moving the baby so we can see. It is a question of hours or days, but we should know for sure very soon I think.”

You do not want to come close and interfere right now?

“To go inside the exposition is impossible. It is breeding without contact. We only see her through the bars during the feeding from one meter or less but she must move the baby into a position so that we can see it.”

Photo: archive of Prague Zoo
And is she talking care of it well?

“Yes, absolutely. She is like an experienced mother. This is her first delivery, but she saw five deliveries here and helped to rear the young. The females work together as a team and if the mother is tired or wants a drink she will hand the baby to another female who will care for it. So from the start Shinda knew perfectly how to handle the baby, how to clean it, how to feed it.”

What about the baby’s name?

“It is too soon to say what that will be. First we do not know the sex, and second – the public may be asked to help chose a name. For us the important thing is that the baby and mother are fine. The name is not important.”

How many babies have you bred here? Is it difficult to breed gorillas in captivity?

“This is our sixth baby gorilla. I do not think it is so difficult to breed gorillas in captivity – of course, you need proper space, the right temperature and animals that create a harmonious group, but if you have that – it is only a question of time when you will have babies. If you have healthy animals it is not so difficult, but in the case of Shinda who had problems, hormonal problems, it is a very special moment because she waited more than 10 years for this baby and we are very happy for her.”

And so who is the father?

“The father is Richard – he is the father of all our babies, though when Shinda showed him the baby he acted like it was not his baby. But that’s normal, because his primary task is to protect and care for the group. Eventually he came close to observe the baby and see that it was OK. He is a very good father and he plays with the babies when they are older. We have two male babies here – one is three years old and the other is six and he plays with them every day. I think he will play with the new baby very soon.”

So eventually the whole group takes care of the baby?

“She waited more than 10 years for this baby and we are very happy for her.”

“Yes, usually the male only cares for the safety of the group and the females rear the babies but when the babies are a bit bigger the male plays with them as well, so it is really a very compact group.”

I understand that while you think this new baby is a boy you would have preferred a girl, why is that?

“That is easy to explain. You know gorillas live in a harem set-up –one male and several females, but of course animals are born 50/50. So you have ten males and ten females but you can only create groups of one male and several females. You always have a surplus of males. And if the males are not genetically very good material –high-ranking in the European population –they will end up in some bachelor male group. It will not be easy to place them, because not all zoos want to have all-male groups, it is not a natural composition, they fight more, it is difficult.”

So a male baby would have to go away while a female would stay?

“No, a female would have to go too in due time, because we would not want her breeding with her father. In both cases it is a matter of time – several years ahead. When the male baby grows strong and tries to pit his strength against the chief male –his father – he will drive him away. The female we would put on contraceptives, but eventually she too will have to go to a new place. Where she will go will be decided within the Endangered European Species program of which we are members. Genetics specialists decide where she is to be sent, what group would be most suitable for her. But that will not happen for another six years.”

Shinda looks incredibly content with her baby –has this changed her position in the troupe?

Photo: archive of Prague Zoo
“We hope so. For a long time she was the leader of the group, not just of the females but the whole group because our male Richard is conservative and very scared when anything happens here –so she was the leader. But two years ago Kijiwu and Kamba (two other females) cut her in hierarchy and she was relegated to third place in the group which was sad to see because she was used to being the boss. But since the delivery we see in her eyes how she is enjoying the situation, and her importance in the group is growing. For example during the feeding she now goes first, sits there and watches the other females and she knows perfectly that she is protected because of her baby. We are very happy not only for her sake but for our own because she helped us a lot when she was leader of the group so we are hoping she will take up that position again.”

There are a lot of people here today - how has the public responded to this unexpected birth?

“Very well. We wanted to open the gorilla pavilion to people right away because for the gorillas it has become natural to see visitors. We have two extra staff here making sure that people do not disturb them, by taking pictures with a flash or making a lot of noise, and we are ready to close the gorilla house in case of problems but you can see that Shinda is lying close to the glass and has no problem with the visitors and if she gets nervous she can always hide behind a rock or trunk. She is perfect and there are a lot of people here who are very interested in her baby also because it is a surprise baby. ”