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Gorillas again in our midst

After a four-year absence, the great apes settle into a new $19-million habitat at the L.A. Zoo. It opens to the public today.

November 08, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Like most 2-year-olds, Glenda runs, claps her hands and rides piggyback on her mother. Unlike most 2-year-olds, she somersaults with the ease of a gymnast, clambers up and down rock walls and loves green veggies.

Ficus leaves were her morning snack of choice on Wednesday as she explored her new environs at the Los Angeles Zoo and briefly played peek-a-boo at the edge of a wall with a small gaggle of onlookers.

She'll undoubtedly have many more visitors as the Los Angeles Zoo opens its new Campo Gorilla Reserve today. After a 4 1/2 -year absence, Western lowland gorillas are back, in a newly constructed exhibit the zoo prefers to call a habitat.

It is part of the continuing overhaul of the middle area of the zoo, which will include an exhibit for long-awaited golden monkeys from China and the controversial elephant habitat now under construction.

With a price tag -- $19 million -- to rival a Beverly Hills mansion, it appears to have all the amenities that a captive gorilla herbivore could want: one-third of an acre of grassy rolling hills, rock ledges to climb and an all-you-can-eat buffet of shrubbery and pomegranate trees. A waterfall cascades into a stream, and little alcoves offer refuge from the madding crowd of spectators.

The top perimeter of the exhibit, dauntingly high, is discreetly wired with a low-voltage electrical current to prevent escapes.

The residents were shipped out of town in 2003, with plans calling for the new habitat to be completed in 2004. But fundraising problems caused delays, which contributed to a higher price tag, in part because of a surge in construction costs across the region.

The gorilla exhibit was paid for with funds from a 1998 bond issue, Proposition CC, as well as city funds and money raised by the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn.

The 1 1/2 -acre exhibit's winding pathway is separated from the rest of the zoo by lush trees and shrubs -- a buffer, staffers hope, from the construction noise and squealing children often encountered on the zoo's main walkways.

"For the people, it's a whole immersion experience," said Jennie McNary, one of the zoo's curators of mammals. "And we hope it gives people a respect for the gorillas."

Architect M. Mario Campos of Jones & Jones Architects in Seattle led the design effort.

"We really want to raise the gorillas above the view level so people are inspired by them -- instead of looking down into a pit at them," said Campos, who has worked on other gorilla exhibits. "Also gorillas like to have distant views of the landscape. The gorillas feel like they have a larger territory."

Joining Glenda at her new home is Kelly, the 20-year-old silverback who fathered her and presides over a troop that also includes Glenda's mother, Rapunzel, 23, and Evelyn, 31. All are back from a stay at the Denver Zoo and slimmer for the experience, although Rapunzel still has a bit of a belly.

On the other side of a dry moat are two bachelor gorillas from Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida: Hasani, 13, who is developing the silvery back that denotes maturity in a male gorilla, and his brother Jabari, a 10-year-old with a lanky body and a narrow, striking face.

"Jabari is very inquisitive and outgoing and fearless," said senior keeper Robin Noll. "When we picked him up at FedEx at the airport and off-loaded him, he never made one vocalization, whereas Hasani was barking and roaring. He was fearful. This guy was like 'no problem.' "

But as in a movie sequel, it's not entirely the same cast that left in 2003. A female gorilla, Angel, and a male, Jim, were sent to the Denver Zoo and will remain there. Caesar, a popular silverback, was dispatched to Zoo Atlanta, where he had been expected to stay permanently. He died unexpectedly in 2004 at age 26 after an illness.

On Wednesday, the gorillas ambled comfortably around their new home. Evelyn -- with her swatch of red hair -- watched from a ledge. According to her Denver keepers, she took up painting.

"I don't think they sent any paintings along," McNary said, adding that painting is a form of mental stimulation.

Kelly, the silverback leader of this group, sauntered by and pulled down an entire branch of ficus to nibble.

Single males cannot be integrated with a silverback male's family group. They would fight him for dominance. But in their bachelor pad, Hasani and Jabari didn't look much like warriors. Hasani lay on his back with his legs in the air, feet crossed.

"Hasani is learning how to be a little bit more in charge. He doesn't have a group, but he does have Jabari to be a leader over. Sometimes they have little tiffs but nothing major," McNary said. For the time being, the zoo has no plans for either of them to mate.

That leaves them plenty of time to lie back and savor the pineapple guavas growing nearby.

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