Daniel Simmonds (Zookeeper) gives expert video advice on: Do the gorillas trust you?; Do you trust the gorillas?; How can you tell gorillas apart? and more...
What kind of relationship do you have with the gorillas?
I work with the gorillas every single day, and I see them all day, every day, so I have a very, very good relationship with the gorillas. And that's very important for a very intelligent animal like a gorilla, or indeed any primate species. But particularly gorillas are very charismatic and highly, highly intelligent primates, so it's important to have a good relationship with them. And that compares to working with a slightly less intelligent animal, like a camel, which just really sees me as someone that comes in, puts the food down and goes. The camel doesn't really see much else than that. But with the gorilla, the dynamics between gorilla and gorilla keeper is much more complex, and subsequently the relationship is very, very important.
Do the gorillas trust you?
I would definitely say that the gorillas trust me. The gorillas in captivity see me everyday. I work very, very closely with the gorillas so I can confidently say the gorillas do trust me.
Do you trust the gorillas?
I think a very important rule that I believe any zookeeper should follow is you should never fully trust any wild animal. I would say its much more important to respect a gorilla and it's abilities. If you respect a gorilla's true abilities, as a very strong, potentially very dangerous animal, that's a lot more important than trusting the gorilla. So perhaps on the short term, one might think that they can fully trust a gorilla, but you should never be too sure, because it's always important to remember they are wild animals and they could suddenly turn.
Do the gorillas ever do anything that amuses you?
Gorillas aren't as playful as a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee is a very manic animal and very entertaining from the human perspective. Gorillas are a lot more chilled out, so they don't tend to do things that we would consider to be amusing all the time. But, for example here at the ZSL London Zoo, our young female gorilla Effie, will often do her best to help us clean the windows every morning. We'll soap them up and squeegee them from one side every single morning, and she'll be doing the same from the other side. That is very amusing. I wish that I could let her out and she could clean the windows for me, because that would save me a huge amount of time. But all the same it's quite funny to watch her doing that, and it gives her a lot of enjoyment every morning.
How can you tell gorillas apart?
Gorillas are very easy to tell apart. Their faces are all incredibly unique. The gorillas sizes, the general shape of their body and the overall structure of their face are very similar to a human being. Each one is very individual, so actually it's quite easy to tell gorillas apart.
How intelligent are gorillas?
Gorillas are extremely intelligent. It would be quite difficult to say what's more intelligent, a chimpanzee, a gorilla, a bonobo or an orangutan. They're all great apes and they're all very intelligent, but I would probably compare them the intelligence of a young toddler in human terms. So a gorilla is relatively intelligent.
How important is body language when looking after gorillas?
Body language when you are working with a gorilla is really, really important. First of all, its key never to look a gorilla directly in the face, because in gorilla terms that's considered a threat. So it's always important never to look straight at them. Obviously we look towards the gorillas, but it's the actual direct eye contact bodylanguage that we'll always avoid. We also, as zoo keepers, fully respect the gorillas as wild animals. They are big, potentially dangerous animals, so we feel it's important to almost act in a submissive way in terms of body language toward the gorillas. Because if you are working with a big silver back gorilla, it's his territory, he's the big man, and it's important that we respect that. Just as, if you were to come across the gorillas in the wild you would act submissively with your body language. So we think it's also really important to do that here, at ZSL London Zoo, where we have the gorillas in captivity.
What kind of temperament do gorillas have?
The general temperament of a gorilla is actually very, very relaxed, verging on quite lazy. Some compare the gorillas to the average human couch potato. If you give them the option to do very little, then they will do very little. So the gorillas actually need a lot of encouragement to be active in their temperament. For example in the wild, the main reason that gorillas will move around is to look for food. If they were to come across a large amount of food in one place, then they probably wouldn't move from that large pile of feed for a number of days. So it's important for us here at London Zoo to ensure that we spread the food around and put it up high to encourage them to move around. Just to keep the gorillas fit and healthy in their temperant and it's just also a part of the general enrichment for an average day.
What do you do if the gorilla attacks?
I've tracked gorillas in the wild in central Africa and it's very, very important to understand what one should do if one is actually charged and attacked by a gorilla. The most important thing to do is to play very submissively when a gorilla attacks. So for example you would drop your head low in your shoulders and generally put your body into a position that looks submissive, just in a way that you can imagine wanting to behave in a submissive way to a very aggressive person in a confrontational situation. You would do the same with a gorilla. It depends who you speak to as some people prefer to stand their charge by a gorilla, others prefer to sit. I myself would prefer to stand because I think the people who sit generally have been bitten perhaps more than people who stand up but maintain a submissive body language at the same time. The most important thing to do though if you are charged and attacked by a gorilla in the wildernesss, is do not run because if you run, there's a good chance of them bite sucking.
Have you ever been attacked by a gorilla?
I've never been attacked properly by a gorilla, but I have been bitten unfortunately, which is my own mistake. I was putting some bows, which is leafy branches, through some wire. It got jammed so I was pushing it through and in the meantime my other hand slipped and went up against the wire, which caused the gorilla to be a bit startled and behave as youd expect them to. The gorilla reared up and bit my hand, so I was rushed off to causality, but my hand is still intact. Funny enough that gorilla, Zaire, one of our females here, still remembers it well over 18 months later and will still now point to my hand and is very curious to look at the scars that she caused. I certainly don't hold it against her as she was just behaving like a gorilla and that's what we want gorillas to do, though we don't want them to attack us or bite us. We want them to behave naturally and she was just doing something a wild gorilla would do. So I certainly don't hold anything against her and I love her as much today as I always have.
Do they ever do anything X rated in front of the visitors?
Gorillas don't sort of exhibit that many X-rated behaviours like Bonobos do, which is probably too X-rated to even talk about. But gorillas do have some X-rated displays here at ZSL London Zoo. Probably our main culprit is our older female gorilla Zaire who pleasures herself quite regularly, unfortunately quite close up to the glass. We look at it here at the zoo as we are providing education, conservation, but also a form of sex education through the x-rated actions of the gorillas. But we do leave that part up to the parents to explain to their kids quite what she's doing. So she enjoys herself and we just leave her to it, obviously.
What is the future for zoos?
I think they'll always be a future for zoos. It's really important that people remember that zoos today have a real specific function, not just ZSL London Zoo, but all modern, progressive zoos have a function to provide funding to field conservation. And specifically, ZSL London Zoo provides millions and millions of pounds every year to more than 40 conservation projects around the world, including the conservation of the Western Olin Gorillas in the wild. And it's important to remember that if there are no zoos, there's no funding for those projects. So if you think we've got three gorillas here, but there are a hundred thousand Western Olin Gorillas in the wild, you always need to remember what's more important: the three gorillas here at the zoo, or the future existence of the entire species? The latter is obviously more important. So it is important to have the zoo in the future to raise awareness, but also keenly, to raise the money for the conservation.
What can the general public do to help gorillas and other endangered animals?
I think its really important for the public to increase their own knowledge of wild animals, wild habitats and the efforts being made by conservation charities, like The Zoological Society of London that owns London Zoo. You can find that out first of all by visiting the websites or indeed visiting the places like ZSL London itself Zoo where there's so much information for people to learn. Once you've then actually learned a bit about the animals and what's being done to protect them, you can then make youre own decision about what you want to do. So that could be something really simple like not renewing your mobile phone every year. This is because the minerals used in the production of mobile phones are mined from central Africa, the very habitat that gorillas live in, and that's causing habitat destruction. Or it could be a case of writing to the local MP to campaign about issues or to comment on issues that you feel the government at a much higher level should be taking care of. I think the important thing though is that everyone within the public, even in the smallest way, needs to be fully aware of the importance of conservation, the importance of animals and the importance of their natural habitats. If each individual person can make the smallest difference then the group effort will be all the stronger.