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About a Gorilla By Sherry Bridgman

Friday December 30, 2005

With a three-foot acacia branch, Bwana, the then massive male gorilla at the S.F. Zoo sits down, shucks the leaves off and stuffs them in his mouth and begins to chew. 

The gorilla is the largest and most robust of all the primates. The head being particularly massive, with a low forehead. In males the head is peaked, due to a well-developed sagittal crest, on which are attached the powerful muscles of the lower jaw which he uses to chew the tough leaves of the acacia. 

For many years my office at the zoo looked directly on to the Gorilla Grotto. Bwana was the dominant silverback male along with the three female gorillas. 

The Gorilla Grotto was all concrete. It was built many years ago with the thinking of making zoo exhibits sanitary. 

The keeper would give the gorillas burlap bags, which they dragged around, sometimes using them as a wrap around their necks, or over their heads, but when they decided to rest they would spread the bags out on the concrete and sit. 

Bwana was such a gentle gorilla; he very rarely chased the females, or threw things. What he did do that was so extraordinary was sit on his burlap bag looking very much like ‘the thinker’, with his massive knuckles propped under his chin. I would hear many zoo visitors remark to the likes of this. Then there would be times when zoo visitors would begin to tease the gorillas. Yelling, laughing and acting like apes themselves. But some would persist in their antics until Bwana had enough. He would get up from his ‘thinking’ position and turn his silverback to the teasers, which, of course made them holler more. Luckily a keeper or the director himself would come flying out of the nearby office with a stern warning not to tease the animals. There were signs all over the zoo about not teasing the animals, but over the years you find out people don’t read signs or think they don’t apply to them. 

OSHA came out for an inspection of the zoo. One of the things that they wanted done was to make steps down the side of the grotto to the moat, so the keeper would have a safer way of getting down to the moat for cleaning. The gorillas were locked up in their night quarters for almost two weeks while city workmen put in the steps. The director was furious that they took so long; he hated having the gorillas locked inside in their small quarters. 

The workmen put a railing in along with the steps, plus some large rocks to make it look more aesthetic. Finally, the concrete dried and they let the gorillas outside. They went over to inspect the steps. First they ripped out the railing, then they pulled out the volley-ball sized rocks and began to throw them in the moat where they broke up into smaller pieces that they then hurled to the walkway where visitors stand to view the gorillas. (What people don’t know about large apes like the gorilla is that they are five-times stronger than the strongest person.) 

Up went the yellow tape, trying to keep the people from being stoned. The keeper tried to get them back in their night quarters, but no luck there. They were not about to go in until their dinnertime around 4:30 p.m. The gorillas were again locked up for another week, the workmen called back to repair their sloppy work under the guidance of the zoo director. 

About a year later the then zoo director secured a large grant to construct a new larger gorilla enclosure with grass, trees, rocks and a rock water fall. He offered the contractor a bonus if he got if finished earlier. And he did. New Gorilla World went up in record time to the delight of all the staff and the director, and zoo-goers.