Young gorillas in zoos nowadays think that humans are our friends, and that despite their chemical stink, ear-splitting whines, and shriveled, hairless bodies, we could all live side by side, as equals. Just last week, I caught my own grandson waving an ice-cream wrapper to get the attention of a tribe of passing humans who were idiotically taunting us with bonobo imitations. After I’d roundly beaten my grandson and threatened him with infanticide, he confessed that he was hoping to lure a human child close enough that it might tumble into our enclosure and become his pet. After beating him some more, he explained that all the young gorillas today dream of having a tiny human to call their own.
The silver hairs on my back stood on end. If my grandmother communicated it to me through a series of emphatic grunts once, she communicated it a thousand times: tiny humans are the most dangerous ones of all, and if a tiny human ever falls into your zoo enclosure, just walk far away and pretend to sleep. “Uh ugh, rumpgf,” she would solemnly add, shaking her head, but today, such wisdom falls on deaf ears.
Little humans may look harmless — pale weaklings fed nothing but sugar water and taught to capitulate at the slightest roar — but I urge you to recall the story of Mooki, the great silverback from our ancestral lowlands who found an infant human abandoned in a tent. Rather than eat it, he freed the puny creature from its cage and allowed the females in his troop to feed it wholesome gorilla milk so that it might live.
Before the next sunrise, Mooki’s head adorned a human hunter’s lodge.
The gorillas who want little humans as pets are the same ones who flaunt their bipedalism and make fun of us older knuckle-walkers. But with life experience on our side, we look at those naive youngsters with a mix of pity and scorn as they beat their chests when they should be slapping them. And we know that grooming one another is not a gross and tiresome chore, but a sacred ritual ensuring social cohesion.
No matter how regularly the zookeepers feed us and provide us medical checkups, we must not forget what the ancients taught us: humans are an unpredictable lot. Take the snaking lines of squawking humans who pass our enclosures day after day. One minute their females are tapping on our enclosure windows to show that they’re ready to mate with us, and the next minute they’re recoiling in horror when we rush forward to take them cheetah-style.
Tiny humans may look cute, and the urge to drag them around by the arms and lovingly bounce them against a wall might be very strong, but you must resist this urge. Feign indifference. Walk away. Lie down. Your life — and the life of every gorilla around you — could depend on it.
Tikitu is a 42-year-old silverback who lives in a Florida home for retired eastern gorillas
The other day at the zoo, some young members of the tribe and I were snacking on ficus leaves, discussing the sudden abundance of flies, and wondering how to spend our afternoon. Suddenly, we heard a sharp cry for help as a small human leaned too far over the rail and seemed as though he would fall into our enclosure. As it turned out, he merely landed on a ledge and was quickly retrieved by a large shrieking female. I confessed to my friends that I’d always dreamed of a little human tumbling into our enclosure so that I might keep him as a pet. Imagine my surprise when my companions confided that they harbored similar longings.
So why can’t we have little humans to care for and throw onto our backs? When the subject comes up, older gorillas will tell you the same thing, that it’s in every gorilla’s best interest to stay far away from humans, and that little humans are downright dangerous.
Sure, this is what elders have been saying since the dawn of time, but is there any truth behind this prejudice? If young humans are so dangerous, why do their elders build us these expensive enclosures and provide us with an abundance of food — when many of their own females look anemic and underfed? Why do they heal our wounds and provide us with medical care, instead of routinely tranquilizing and consuming us, as they surely do with the wildebeests and ostriches in the enclosures just over yonder hill? Even the oldest and wisest silverback would admit that, in the right light, the humans who peer at us through the enclosure glass often appear as curious and intelligent as we are.
“Humans are dangerous, and the little ones are the worst, period,” I can hear all the old fogies saying.
Yet I remain unconvinced. Humans have no claws or fangs, and with their with stick-like appendages, even the strongest male among them would be easily pummeled by our weakest female. The fear of humans is nothing more than an inherited bias, an irrational fear. I read an article in last week’s Enclosurist that says there have been no instances of human attacks on gorillas in zoos in over 50 years. That’s half a century! And the Urban Lowlander published a study that says gorillas and humans share up to 98 percent of the same DNA. We’re practically cousins!
Yet so many among us cling to the expired idea that small humans are dangerous. And don’t tell me about Mooki. We all know that’s just an old chimpanzee tale passed down from our great-great-great-grandparents who, quite literally, spent their entire lives eating grubs in the jungle. But times have changed. We live in city zoos, surrounded by humans who care for us and only want to see us happy. They couldn’t hurt us if they tried, and they wouldn’t hurt us if their lives depended on it, because they love us that much.
The next time a human child wanders near your enclosure, don’t react with fear. Encourage it to tumble in. If you’re lucky and it does fall into the enclosure, approach it as you would a baby gorilla. Take its hand. Remove bugs from its cute little patch of head fur. Make it laugh by pulling it through the water. Who knows? You might find that you’ve got a new best friend.
Harambe was a 17-year-old western gorilla who lived in the Cincinnati Zoo until his recent tragic death. He dreamed of moving to a more vibrant and tolerant gorilla enclosure in the Los Angeles or Bronx zoo.