Not all gorillas at the San Diego Zoo are confined to cages these days. Well, at least not the bronze gorillas congregated in the zoo's new gorilla exhibit, which was unveiled Saturday.
In the heart of the zoo, at the entrance to the new "Gorilla Tropics: The Michael Dingman Family African Rain Forest," sit four gorillas and two baby gorillas made of bronze that look so real that some might mistake them for escaped primates.
Nearly a year ago, zoo officials knew they wanted life-size models of a gorilla family to adorn the entrance to the new exhibit, and Robert Berry of El Cajon, a prize-winning taxidermist turned animal sculptor, was their man.
"They didn't know what the sculptures would look like, but they knew what they wanted," Berry said. "It was a big job. The original models are made from clay and enlarged to full-size. The full-size models are bronze."
Berry learned his craft by taking a mail-order course in taxidermy when he was 12 years old. The talent he learned from books turned into a 25-year profession. Some of his first sculptures were of fish and birds, and Berry has won contests for his lifelike models.
"I have done museum work and commercial work," Berry said. "Taxidermy gave me a sound foundation of animal anatomy, so I pretty much know how an animal should look."
Starting last April, Berry worked 12 to 15 hours a day molding clay into muscle and flesh. He said he could have worked on the project even longer, but the zoo had a March 23 deadline to open the first phase of the "Heart of the Zoo II" exhibit.
Berry's work is part of the $12-million first phase of that 2.5-acre exhibit. The Gorilla Tropics exhibit is a simulation of an African rain forest, which houses African birds, six gorillas and thousands of African plants.
The bronze gorillas, sitting in front of the area where the live gorillas live, include a large, silver-backed male gorilla, which is the dominant member of the family group; a female sitting with her baby; another female lying on her back clutching a newborn baby on her side; and a juvenile gorilla.
Berry's garage served as his workshop, where he began and finished his project, starting with models one-fifth the size of the life-size statues. The smaller models, which Berry is now selling as limited editions, were examined during a series of meetings by architects and animal experts before the specific poses were agreed on.
His efforts paid off. He was paid more than $100,000 for the job, and said he feels proud that his hard work is on public display.
"This is something that will carry on for years," Berry said. "The sculptures will be at the zoo for decades and continue to be exhibited and allow people to see them. This is something special people will enjoy for a long, long time."
Berry said he has been to the San Diego Zoo a few times since the exhibit opened, and he loves watching people respond to the sculptures.
"People climb on them and get right up on them and make comparisons of sizes," Berry said. "None of the children seemed to be afraid. They're not ferocious-looking animals. The kids take to them real well." Zoo officials are also happy with Berry's work. "We certainly are pleased with the work he's done, especially the educational aspect it brings to the exhibit," said Chuck Bieler, the zoo's director of development. "The people can actually walk up to the life-size figures. This is absolutely what the zoo was looking for."
Georgeanne Irvine, a zoo spokeswoman, said public response to the bronze statues is overwhelming.
"People love the bronze gorillas, and take their pictures with the models. I've seen adults sitting on the large silver-backed model. They just go nuts for them."