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Gorilla, Swingin' Digs Ready in Santa Barbara

Max is not really your ape's ape a la King Kong. He's a stay-at-home type who should enjoy his new $750,000 compound.


His name is Max. He's something of a loner, a washout with the girls. Not a thrill seeker, he's the cautious type. Worst of all, he stinks--but then, so do all gorillas.

Max, the newest arrival at the Santa Barbara Zoo, makes his debut this weekend. But don't count on a splashy entrance. He is still getting used to his lush new home, a $750,000 rock-lined, grassy compound with bamboo trees and a soothing little waterfall.

As of a week ago, Max hadn't ventured into this outdoor paradise, preferring instead the inside dens. The farthest he dared go was the doorway, despite tempting offerings of his favorite fruits and vegetables just outside on the grass.

Zoo officials expect he will loosen up by the time the new gorilla exhibit opens Friday. During the grand-opening weekend, visitors can quiz themselves on gorilla facts and enter a drawing for a big stuffed gorilla.

The exhibit itself is amazing. A winding walkway leads to a little one-room hut, similar to the one where gorilla researcher Dian Fossey holed up to study the animals in the mountains of central Africa.

Inside the hut, named for Fossey's Karisoke Research Center, an old-fashioned manual typewriter sits on a beat-up desk, along with an ancient microscope. A hammock swings nearby.


You can see into the gorilla compound from a couple of overlooks, but the best spot is a "viewing cave" at ground level. From here, you can look through safety glass onto a grassy knoll. A waterfall trickles water into a little pond. Bamboo and mint grow here for Max to munch.

Visitors "will see a gorilla as they would see him in his natural habitat," said Nancy Hollenbeck, the zoo's assistant director. "This is the most exciting project to happen at the Santa Barbara Zoo."

Max, the zoo's first gorilla, is a silverback, the name given to mature, adult males because of their silver-gray hair. He has spent nearly all of his 27 years at the Topeka Zoo, where he was something of a celebrity, according to Mike LaRue, the Topeka Zoo's director.

Although he was shy around other gorillas, he put on a show for small children. When they would approach the viewing glass, he would stride up and pound the glass hard with his huge fist.

"The kids would scream and run away," LaRue said. "Then they'd come back laughing. I think he was just having fun. Gorillas like to make noise."

Max, born at the Dallas Zoo, failed miserably as a mate. LaRue said the zoo brought in a female, Tiffany, and launched a media campaign around a "Breakfast at Tiffany's" theme. But Max fizzled as a lover. He spent more than a year at the Denver Zoo in the same pursuit.

"He didn't pick up any tips on how to be an amorous gorilla," LaRue said. "He preferred to stay on his own." In fact, when one of the female gorillas in the compound would approach him, he would get up and walk away.

His move to the Santa Barbara Zoo was engineered through the Species Survival Plan, a strategy aimed at improving the survival rate of endangered animals such as Max.

Technically on loan from the Topeka Zoo, Max will ultimately head a "bachelor" group of younger male gorillas, a social grouping that actually exists in the wilds, Hollenbeck said. By fall he could have two pals.

But moving Max, who weighs in at 469 pounds, to Santa Barbara was no easy feat. It takes a wide-body 747 to haul such an animal, and none flew out of Kansas City. So zoo employees rented a truck, fitted the cab with air fresheners, loaded Max into a crate, and drove him.


After a stint in quarantine, he was introduced to his new home. In addition to the dens where he has some privacy, he can explore a tunnel and climb a ladder to a large "day room" on the second floor. It's got windows and sky lights.

"He's a real nice gorilla," said Susan Hoegeman, the zoo's vet. (Although dangerous, gorillas are not the aggressive brutes portrayed in movies like "King Kong.") As gorillas go, he is considered quite handsome. "He keeps himself real clean--he's very concerned about his appearance." He is known as a western lowland gorilla and stands 5 feet 7. His hands stretch 11 inches.

His diet? The main source is "leafeater" biscuits, plus fruits and vegetables. He can drink out of a cup. For "behavior enrichment," he's fed peanut butter, seeds or raisins stuffed into tubes that require some thought and energy to extract.

"He loves juice and grapefruit," Hoegeman said. "He eats bananas like they are shrimp."


* WHAT: "The Forest's Edge: A Habitat for Endangered Great Apes," a new gorilla exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

* WHEN: Opens Friday. Zoo hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

* WHERE: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, Cabrillo Boulevard exit off the Ventura Freeway.

* HOW MUCH: $5 for adults, $3 for children 2 to 12 and seniors, free for children younger than 2.

* FYI: 962-6310.

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