The Cincinnati Zoo Primate Department provides excellent care for our extended family of about 25 primate species, which includes approximately 70 individuals. A lot of effort goes into their care and proper management. In addition to the basic nutritionally balanced diet, exemplary husbandry, and dynamic environmental enrichment, a comprehensive operant conditioning (OC) program has been in place for more than ten years. Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement refers to a method of training that incorporates building a trusting relationship with the animals along with a systemic communication technique that allows keepers to cooperatively shape desired behaviors needed from them to make the animals’ lives better.
For instance through OC training, the Zoo’s Western-lowland gorillas have numerous behaviors that they will offer to aid in evaluating health. The gorillas will present their hands, feet, ears, bellies, backs, knees, shoulders, open their mouths, and stick out their tongues, all on cue followed by a positive reinforcement, which is usually a favorite food item like grapes. OC is engaging and mentally stimulating for the gorillas and allows keepers and vets the opportunity to do some important work with them. The Zoo’s gorillas will also allow cardiac ultrasound imaging work to be done, all voluntarily, while awake, through a protective mesh safely separating the keepers and gorillas. Training techniques are also used to encourage natural behaviors and help form a cohesive social dynamic within the family group.
Recently, we initiated some maternal management behavior training with an expecting gorilla named “Asha”. One of our primary goals was to do regular fetal ultrasounds throughout the pregnancy. Early on in the pregnancy, primate keeper Ashley Ashcraft worked as the primary trainer for this. As with most of the OC work, the zoo’s wonderful vet techs, Jenny Kroll and Amy Long, were also included to assist with the monitoring, along with additional help from the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) scientists. Throughout Asha’s gestation we have been able to follow along with fetal development and are still doing ultrasounds once or twice a week as we come down to parturition. At this point, the fetus is a little too big to see fully on ultrasound but we clearly see a good heartbeat and movement. Asha, understandably, rests a lot and eats like a horse. She is still well within the predicted birth period so all is looking good. Gorillas have a gestation period of 250 to 280 days.
Asha will be a first-time mom but has great history with younger siblings, from growing up in Brownsville, Texas. She has also had the chance to watch little Gladys, with her surrogate mother “Mlinzi”, for additional lessons. The Zoo’s team of volunteer observers are also watching Asha overnight, by remote monitor, just to be extra safe. The family group Asha currently lives with is very cohesive and lead by the great silverback, named “Jomo,” who is also very good with little ones.
Jomo (formally of the Toronto Zoo) and Asha, along with approximately 360 other gorillas in about 50 zoos, are managed cooperatively through something called a Species Survival Plan(SSP) under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The SSP carefully tracks the genetics of each gorilla, gorilla personalities and facilities, and with critical input from each zoo, develops a comprehensive Masterplan every two years that outlines recommended transfers for breeding, or to help social situations. Zoos are very altruistic in how they view gorillas and work hard together for the betterment of the overall big picture management.
So, thanks to great team work on the national level, as well as right here at the Cincinnati Zoo, we are prepared and patiently awaiting the birth of Asha’s baby. Everyone is excited and very hopeful all will continue to go smoothly as we come down to the end. Stay tuned……