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Thursday, December 11, 2014


The first naturalistic exhibit for gorillas in the world opened in August of 1979 in the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Until then the gorillas had been confined to large, concrete cells fronted by heavy glass. Seattle's famous gorilla Bobo lived in such a cage when as a boy I "played" with him. But then zoo director David Hancocks hired Grant Jones to design the Woodland Park Zoo gorilla house, and, with the help of Dian Fossey, did a splendid job of creating a sort of natural canyon for the apes to live in, complete with forty-foot-tall trees and surrounded by a moat. They were worried about the trees, afraid that the gorillas might climb them and fall, but field scientist George Schaller, when asked about the trees, replied, "I don't know if they're going to fall out of them or not, but somebody has to do this."

They also planted some hawthorn trees, but at only ten feet high with a diameter of four to five inches, the trees were monkeyed with by the apes. The big, silverback gorilla, Kiki, pulled all the branches off one, then ripped it out of the ground. Its wide roots acted as a tripod and the tree stood by itself, becoming a plaything for Kiki. Since the tree wasn't long enough to bridge the moat, the zookeepers didn't worry much about it. Kiki began disappearing for hours at a time, but since the new environment was large, they figured Kiki was back behind some shrubbery somewhere. Later one of the keepers said that Kiki was in the back of the habitat, sitting on the edge of the big dry moat. He had been making plans.

In December of 1979, Kiki took his tree to the far corner, leaned it up against the wall, and thought about it. Finally he decided to make his move. Using the tree trunk, stepping up on the roots and lunging, the big gorilla managed to grab hold of the top of the moat, pull himself up, and land in the rhododendrons. He was free and loose in the park!

Some visitors saw Kiki sitting in the bushes, shaking in fear, and ran to the director's office and told Hancocks. His response was calm, because people were often reporting loose gorillas in the trees. He told them, "The gorilla's not out. The exhibit, you see, is called landscape immersion. It's intended to give you the impression that the gorillas are free."

The visitors thanked him and left, but Hancocks overheard one say to the other, "Still, it just doesn't seem right having him sit there on the sidewalk like that."

"Sidewalk?" Hancocks said.

The police were then called, not to capture Kiki but to stop people from coming into the zoo. It was the veterinarian, Jim Foster, who approached the gorilla and offered him fruit to calm him down. A ladder was put across the moat and Dr. Foster climbed on it to show Kiki how to cross. But when the 470-pound gorilla tried it, the ladder wobbled and fell, so Kiki backed off, shaking his head about any further attempts.

Then Kiki gently pushed Dr. Foster aside and went to visit the nocturnal animal house. Its door was locked, but that didn't stop the great ape. He grabbed the knob, pulled the lock off, and walked in. He then went from cage to cage, just standing and looking at the busy little animals. Meanwhile Dr. Foster put some bananas on the floor outside the door, and when Kiki came out the veterinarian shot him with a tranquilizer dart. In a few minutes the gorilla became drowsy and the keepers were able to carry him back to his habitat.

Kiki never tried to escape again, although he knew how to do it. He didn't want to leave his area again. It was explained by Jon Coe that escape is almost never a design problem, but a social problem, a question of motivation. "One of the roles a silverback has in life is to patrol its territory. Kiki wasn't escaping from something," Coe explained, "he was exploring outward from the center of his territory to define its edges."

But, you and I know the real reason that Kiki climbed out of his habitat. He just wanted to visit the nocturnal animal house and watch the busy little animals.

Information gathered from the 
Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1987, "No RMS, Jungle VU," Melissa Greene
Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Nov. 12, 2008, Mary Ellen Gorham

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