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Seeking Gorilla of His Dreams

Caesar, still childless at 26, leaves the L.A. Zoo for Atlanta with the hope that he'll find a mate.

March 27, 2004|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

For weeks, the gorilla and the zoo lady had this little dance: Caesar would lumber into the crate, and mammal curator Jennie McNary would heap him with praise and tamarind pods. Show your foot, she would ask. And the silverback would show his foot. Mouth? And Caesar was all teeth.

After 26 years at the Los Angeles Zoo, this new game was incorporated last summer into Caesar's daily routine. One day, the dance would take a different turn. The door of the crate would finally close and Caesar would begin a new life, part of a 10-month odyssey from his Los Angeles birthplace to the zoo in Atlanta.

If it went well, Caesar would sire babies. Caesar never had any success with females in L.A. "They tried several combinations," said Steve Tirotta, a lead animal keeper. "No spark." Male gorillas have low libidos, he said: "The females have to get the fires going."

But zookeepers speculate that better times await Caesar in Atlanta.

The western lowland gorilla, whose official public debut today at Zoo Atlanta is being marked with "Hail Caesar!" festivities -- wear a toga and get $3 off the price of admission -- has shed 150 pounds since May and impressed his new keepers. If Zoo Atlanta is lucky, they may have a star to replace Willie B., the gorilla who drew 7,000 people to his memorial service four years ago.

Such big moves are nerve-racking for zookeepers and animals. The L.A. Zoo had to relocate all six of its gorillas while building a new exhibit. Five were anesthetized long enough to be put in crates, and then shipped by truck to the Denver Zoo.

But Caesar's destination was too far for a road trip. And to avoid the risks of anesthetizing him -- he stopped breathing once when he was anesthetized last year for a physical exam -- zoo officials decided to see if they could train him to walk into a crate.

Although he's technically on loan from Los Angeles, they hope Caesar makes Atlanta his new home. The Species Survival Plan, a program set up by the American Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums to maintain genetic diversity among endangered species, had recommended Caesar to Zoo Atlanta.

Removed one generation from the wild -- his parents had been captured -- Caesar is the first gorilla delivered by Caesarian section, according to L.A. Zoo officials. He grew fat in captivity, weighing 675 pounds a year ago.

Zoo officials put Caesar into training and decided he should lose 100 pounds for his health. They cut back on his fruit, which made him cranky at first. His days became rigorous -- training sessions at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

"I was a little worried how hard we could push him to work on something new," McNary said. "He's really smart."

On the first day of training in early June, they simply put the crate, both doors open, in his enclosure. "A keeper the next morning said it appeared he built a nest in the crate and may have slept in it," McNary said.

Caesar's enclosure was divided into two sides by an interior mesh wall with a locked gate. Each day, staffers positioned the crate with its open door at the gate opening. McNary and a keeper sat on the closed side of the crate.

They spent two weeks coaxing Caesar inside.

After he started walking in, McNary began making requests: touch the back of the crate, show a shoulder or foot or arm, open his mouth.

"You can't make him do anything," McNary said. "He doesn't do anything unless he wants to participate."

He was rewarded with food -- from his approved diet.

The more commands he learned, the more comfortable Caesar became in the crate.

Once, the jiggle of the door startled Caesar and sent him flying out of the enclosure. It took a few days before he would return inside. McNary decided they would not move the door until the day they would transfer him.

By late July, the dieting was working. "You can see his hips better," McNary said one morning as she escorted a visitor and several zoo officials to see Caesar. He was drinking orange juice spiked with fish oil. The sight of the group agitated him, and he skittered by, clutching a plastic stool. Like all male gorillas, Caesar has a tangy body odor that is especially strong when he is anxious or excited.

Zoo workers made an adjustment on the rope that operated the crate door so McNary could hold it without arousing Caesar's suspicion. They also gave him anti-anxiety drugs.

Finally, on Aug. 27 during Caesar's afternoon training session, McNary pulled on the rope and dropped the door. Caesar turned and looked at the door, then looked back at her.

"I told him this morning he was going to Atlanta, and I apologized because I knew it would be scary for him," she said later.

Caesar spent the evening and night in the crate, which was placed in the back of a truck. Zoo staffers set up fans to blow air on him and put in burlap and straw for bedding. Her long task over, McNary sat by the truck that evening, filled with relief. She watched Caesar sitting in his crate, his head back against the wall, his lower lip jutting out.

Was he sad?

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