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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v9n45 (11/11/2010) » Five Questions With...

Cyndi Griffin: Gorilla Keeper

Get to know a Buffalonian...

Cyndi Griffin: Gorilla Keeper

Griffin, a 14-year veteran animal keeper with the Buffalo Zoo, has worked with many animals during her 14 years on the job; macaques, lemurs, meerkats and birds among some of them. But her focus is with the Zoo’s resident population of Western Lowland Gorillas, where she has been head keeper the past ten years. On Oct. 8, the Zoo welcomed a new addition to the gorilla exhibit with the birth of a new baby—gender still undetermined—the first born at the Zoo since 2000.

How did you start working with gorillas? Have you always had an affinity for the species?

I have always had an affinity for animals in general, which is why I wanted to work at the zoo. I chose a college curriculum that focused on zookeeping and animal behavior. My love of gorillas did not come about until I had the pleasure of working with them as an intern. They are physically impressive, with the males reaching 450 pounds, but they are so extremely intelligent. When you look in their eyes, you can actually see them thinking, working things out.

Do the gorillas at the Buffalo Zoo have different personalities. What are some of their specific characteristics?

They absolutely have very distinct personalities. Aside from our new baby, whose personality is yet to shine through, we have four gorillas at the Buffalo Zoo. Each of them has a unique personality, but like people, they can act vastly different from day to day, dependent on their mood. Koga is our silverback, or dominant male and his personality reflects his serious role in the troop. He can have playful moments, but usually does not like to be “caught” acting this way. He takes his role as protector seriously. Becky is our crabby old lady who mostly sits around and scowls a lot. She is even crabbier lately as we have put her on a diet. Sidney is our new mom and her personality has definitely changed with her new baby. She still enjoys attention from her keepers, but is very focused on her new responsibilities. Last but not least is Lily, who was our youngest until the new baby. Lily was kind of used to being in the spotlight, but has shown a real jealous streak since the attention has shifted away from her.

How does the Zoo manage its breeding program? How much privacy do the gorillas have during the actual mating process. Is that private time or a prime research opportunity?

The zoo is part of a nationwide breeding program which is slowing evolving to become worldwide. Genetics are monitored through a Species Survival Program and it is they who recommend to zoos who should breed with who. Gorillas cycle and can become pregnant monthly and no special preparations are made for breeding, they will mate when the mood is right, regardless of the location. Modesty is not a gorilla quality I have seen.

Is the mother still defensive of her baby? How difficult has it been to get access?

Our new mom Sidney is naturally defensive of her baby like any good mom. She is willing to let us get a fairly good look, but would never allow us to take the baby from her. We can see that the infant is strong and nursing regularly, and that is good enough for us. Taking the baby away from mom at this point is unnecessary and would cause tremendous stress to both.

Are the gorillas accustomed to interacting with their keepers? Have you ever been caught in a dangerous situation?

The gorillas have close interactions with their keepers every day; however, we never enter the enclosure with them. Training takes place through bars for our safety because gorillas are extremely powerful wild animals and can be unpredictable. Because they are in cages, there is very little risk of injury to myself unless I screw up. I need to be very vigilant about locks and doors so the gorillas and I don’t have any unintended meetings!

Bonus: What is the conservation status of the lowland gorilla in the world today?

There are 4 subspecies of gorillas, including the Western Lowland gorillas, which is what most zoo gorillas are. Other Species are Eastern Lowland, Mountain and Cross River. All are highly endangered and at risk of extinction. Zoos are helping save gorillas in several ways; by maintaining a strong genetic pool of captive gorillas, aggressively conserving the natural habitat these animals have left in Africa, and educating people in their home countries as well as globally about the unique value this species has to the world.

Bonus: Do you think animals are happier in captivity than they would be living in the wild? What are some of the disadvantages or challenges to living in a Zoo?

That is a difficult question to answer on behalf of the gorillas. Happiness and freedom are distinctly human concepts. I cannot honestly say how animals perceive these issues. All the gorillas at the zoo were born in captivity and therefore don’t know another way of life. While many people lament what animals “give up” while living in zoos, I tend to focus on the positive things we bring to their lives. Wild gorillas face a daily struggle to survive threats such as starvation, deforestation, trapping and hunting, disease and the elements just to name a few. Zoo gorillas live a much cushier lifestyle with access to proper nutrition, veterinary care and freedom from being hunted. For these reason, gorillas tend to live 10-20 years longer in captivity than their wild counterparts. Because of their extreme intelligence, it is challenging to keep these animals from getting bored, and maintain natural social structures, but I think zoos are becoming more successful at this every day and this allows our gorillas to live a very natural, though safer, life.

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