Another sad zoo story

Aw, damn.

The gorilla born at the Como Zoo to first-time mother Alice on Wednesday has died, the zoo announced Monday.

The “preliminary hypothesis” is there was difficulty with the newborn’s feeding that led to the death Sunday, the zoo said in a statement.

The statement added that zoo leadership was making the announcement “with a very heavy heart.” This was first gorilla birth in the 55 years that Como has housed the large primates. Another gorilla birth at the zoo is anticipated for December or January.

Crap. That’s so sad. Gorilla births are a big deal.

Since the birth, the baby and Alice were under zookeeper watch and care around the clock, the zoo statement noted. The baby had appeared to be doing well through Saturday evening, strong in grip and voice, and Alice had been taking well to motherhood.

But then, the statement read, staff started having difficulty keeping tabs on the baby’s feeding regimen because Alice would cradle the newborn to her chest with her back toward the zookeepers.

The statement then went onto describe the baby’s final hours:

“On Sunday morning it was apparent that the baby was weak and his health failing. While the [staff’s] intervention process was happening, the baby was set down by Alice, and the zookeepers were able to retrieve him without the need to immobilize Alice.

“Resuscitation efforts on the infant were quickly performed but were unsuccessful.”


Been there, done that – except for the death part. One of the two adult female orangs had her second infant when I was working at the zoo, and it took a long time for her to figure out the nursing thing – something like two days I think. (She’d failed totally with her first, abandoning him, but this infant she held and cuddled.) It was nerve-racking – obviously the goal wasn’t to let the infant starve, but neither was it to raise yet another orang in the nursery. There were all kinds of things tried, and we watched them round the clock – I did the swing shift. Then on the second (I think) full day the infant randomly squirmed her way onto the nipple and started nursing. Result! But here it sounds as if the infant was nursing at first, so that’s frustrating.

Out of 437 gorilla births at Association of Zoos and Aquariums institutions since 1980, 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females did not make it to their first birthday.

In wild-living western gorilla populations, mortality rates in the first year have been reported up to 42 percent and in mountain gorillas, first-time mothers have 50 percent higher infant mortality rates than second-time mothers.

Woodland Park had good success with its gorilla births.


  1. irene says

    I remember about a case like this where a bunch of breastfeeding moms volunteered to come bring their babies and have a nurse-in where the gorilla mother (I think it was a gorilla — some great ape, anyway) could see them. Apparently having examples there helped.

  2. says

    It might possibly have been my story – that was one of the things we tried. Oddly enough there happened to be two women with nursing babies at the time, and at least one of them did do a demo. (I can’t remember if both did.) It didn’t actually help though. Nothing worked until the moment the infant just happened to get herself into the right place and then glommed on. I think I have told that story here, which I guess is why I hesitated to tell it again.

  3. Bernard Bumner says

    As a dad whose significant other struggled to breast feed, I really feel this.

    Our son was hospitalised at a week old because of an infection stopping him feeding. Intensive care, collapsed circulation, tubes, monitors, incubator, flashing lights, an terminology flying around that (as a biochemist) I almost understood.

    I realised that in the absence of technology this would have been the fate of our very recent ancestors, unless a wet nurse could be found.

    I felt like a very fortunate but vulnerable primate.

    In a world where gorillas were prolific, this death would merely be a personal tragedy.

  4. lorn says

    Sad, but clearly not unexpected or unusual. I don’t think anything more could be done. As stated, the odds will be better the next time around.

    A dark day, but with a bit of light on the horizon.

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