So what’s in name, anyway? As it pertains to western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), quite a bit actually. Wild western lowland gorillas are a critically endangered species. Zoos do not take gorillas from the wild and have not for decades. Zoos do everything they can to protect wild gorillas. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden (CZBG) has partnered with in situ gorilla research and conservation in the Republic of Congo for well over 12 years. Here at home zoos work incredibly hard to ensure we are doing the absolute best we can for our gorillas. All gorillas throughout North America are managed cooperatively through a group called the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP keeps track of all 350+ gorillas cared for in 52 different institutions. Every two years a comprehensive master plan is developed by combining data on genetics, individual gorilla personality, institutional input, and many other demographics to ensure we are able to properly managing this flagship species for many years into the future.
Zoo gorillas play a key role as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. Through their strong appeal with zoo guests we are able to share fun facts and important conservation messages combined with action steps, giving our supporters a clearer view of the bigger picture.
As a result of this high responsibility, rarely are gorillas given just a simple fun name. Not that there is anything wrong with that with some species. For instance, our family of pointy eared Gray’s guenon monkeys (cercopithecus pogonias grayii) all have Vulcan names and our regal group of guereza colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza) all have Roman Emperor names. However, when naming a gorilla we usually want to select a name with some significant meaning that represents our goals for these exceptionally valuable animals.
Many times gorillas are given African language names. In our gorilla family now we have a female named “M’linzi” which means “to guard or protect” in Swahili. The last gorilla born here was named “Bakari” which means “to have a bright future”. On rare occasions gorillas are named for a person that has significantly contributed to the betterment of the species. “Madge” the gorilla was named after one of our long time zoo volunteers, Madge Van Buskirk who organized the very first newborn gorilla watches. Since then Madge and her team, now called the Zoo Volunteer Observers (ZVO), have organized dozens of critical animal watches for the zoo. “Cecil” the gorilla was named in honor of “Cecil Jackson Sr.”, who was an innovator of gorilla management back in the late 50s and 60s as a CZBG keeper, making diet modifications that are still incorporated today. Cecil Sr. was one of the very first human beings to have ever witnessed the birth of a baby gorilla.
These very exclusive naming honors are not only intended to recognize the people but also provide great segway opportunities when speaking to guests about the work we do. The best example of this can be seen with “Samantha” the gorilla. One of the first two gorillas born in Cincinnati, Samantha had to be hand raised due to lack of maternal care, just like this current baby. Back in 1970 we did not know as much about baby gorillas as we do today so this newborn was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital for a short period before returning to the zoo with many nurses and doctors in tow to help. In honor of Good Sam’s life assuring assistance, “Samantha” was the name given. This is a story we tell over and over again during our gorilla talks with guests at the zoo and a prime example of collaboration needed do everything we can for gorillas.
Now 43 years later, through some kind of wonder, Samantha’s great, great granddaughter, has a very similar start to life and has wound up here in Cincinnati. How this happened is one of the finest examples of selflessness I personally have seen in 30 years of working with gorillas. Sometimes mother gorillas just aren’t quite ready to be mothers and this happened at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville TX late this January. Immediately, Facilities Director, Jerry Stones, a 50 year zoo veteran and gorilla specialist, began hand raising the baby 24/7 along with his team there including Cindy Stones. Realizing that the mom would not take the baby back and that all of their other potential surrogates were busy with their own babies, Jerry acted quickly to call Cincinnati and the Gorilla SSP to ensure that the best decision would be made for her. The rest has been well documented.
Think of how excited the Cincinnati area is to have this little gorilla here. Think of the stories we will be able to share as she grows up in our gorilla family. Now put yourself in the Gladys Porter Zoo’s shoes. This was not only a great sacrifice for the business side of their organization but a huge personal sacrifice to Jerry and his team to have to part ways with a special little animal that you cannot help have a strong attachment to. Hats off to the Gladys Porter Zoo and Jerry Stones for doing the right thing. I cannot think of a better name for this inspirational creature than “Gladys Stones”. Just as her great, great grandmother has done for 43 years, Gladys will now help us tell the tale of how zoos cooperate to help save gorillas. Besides, “Gladys Stones” kind of sounds like a rock star name…..”Gladys Stones and the Apes, now playing at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden”… Fitting as she actually is a rock star for gorilla conservation.