Hanging with the Primates: A Zookeeper’s Perspective

After 11 years, Houston finally has a great ape exhibit.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen February 5, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Brian Goldman

The gorillas are getting impatient. It’s a mild winter day at the Houston Zoo, and the three males that make up the bachelor group—Chaka, Mike and Ajari—know that it’s time to be let into their outdoor habitat, which opened to the public last May. But overnight rains have left extra standing water in the enclosure, and zoo employees are still draining it and hiding food around the space for the gorillas to find.

As the apes raise a minor ruckus in their bedrooms, primate supervisor Jill Moyse’s walkie-talkie crackles with updates on the status of the gorilla habitat, an issue with lemurs, and the arrival of the chimpanzee’s acupuncturist. Since Moyse came to the zoo a year ago, the constant chatter of her walkie-talkie has been the only thing about her days—spent managing 22 keepers and nine different sections of primates—that never seems to change. Finally, the enclosure is ready, and the three gorillas careen out into the yard, eager to find their breakfast.

Moyse has been working with gorillas for over a decade, since she helped open the Regenstein Center for African Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in 2004. “I never expected that I would work with gorillas or chimpanzees,” she says. “I never imagined that I would fall in love with them, and literally from my first gorilla that I fed—Kwan, a silverback—I was like, ‘I love gorillas.’”

Though her love of animals dates back to childhood, Moyse’s early interests and career revolved around a different mammal. “When I was really young, my aunt took me to SeaWorld, and I saw my first dolphin show. Just like that, I was hooked. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do; I want to be a dolphin trainer,’” says Moyse. “I was that dorky little 7-year-old writing letters to SeaWorld.”

Moyse, who was raised in upstate New York and has a chipper but pragmatic air about her, went on to study psychobiology—the science of animal behavior. From there, she took jobs at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, and the Lincoln Park Zoo, where her training background earned her a spot in the Center for African Apes despite the fact that she had little hands-on experience with primates. “The same concepts go into training your dog or a dolphin or a gorilla,” she explains. “It’s all positive reinforcement.”

After arriving in Houston last February, Moyse put in long days to get both the habitat and the gorillas, who include the bachelor trio as well as a family-based group of four, ready for their Houston debut a couple of months later. She brought in professional rock climbers to try out the walls of the enclosure—“if they could climb out, gorillas could climb out,” she says—and spent hours introducing the new apes to their space, their staff and each other.

As part of that effort, she acclimated the bachelor gorillas to being around men, to whom they were initially sensitive, by having male workers come and sit in view of the habitat. She also implemented enrichment programs to help mentally engage the gorillas, who challenge themselves by digging raisins out of holes drilled into plastic boards, for example, and wiping peanut butter off of discs hung on the walls of their enclosure, delightedly licking the sticky stuff from their fingers.

Their state-of-the-art, two-acre habitat, the opening of which ended Houston’s 11 years without a great ape exhibit, took four years of planning and $28 million to build. It incorporates many of the natural elements of the African savannah: From a grassy bluff filled with banana trees, the apes can swing down a felled tree into the hog wallow, a muddy embankment they share with a troupe of red river hogs. There’s also a vast indoor day room, which entertains the gorillas with ropes, hammocks and a 23-foot climbing tree.

A particular focus for Moyse has been training the gorillas to participate in matters relating to their health. They’re taught to present their bodies to keepers every day in exchange for juice and other treats, giving the caretakers a chance to look for wounds. Since males are prone to heart issues—of the current residents, both Chaka and Mike have them—each gets regular cardiac ultrasounds, presenting their chests while a stenographer from MD Anderson runs an ultrasound machine and Moyse works its wand.

After arriving in Houston, Moyse missed the gorillas she’d worked with for more than a decade, in some cases since they were babies, back in Chicago. But she quickly bonded with a chimpanzee named Lucy and developed a particular fondness for Ajari, the 16-year-old teenager of the gorilla bachelor trio. “I tend to go for animals that don’t fit the mold and are a little different and fun. I go for the big-personality animals,” says Moyse. “He’s really fun and playful and energetic, so I can really relate to him.”

The gorillas and chimpanzees Moyse has worked with, past and present, are like a second family to her. One animal she knew in Chicago, Kwan, had an uncanny ability to read people, so Moyse would bring by any man she was dating to see his reaction. “I definitely am better at training gorillas than I am the human male version,” she laughs. “Gorillas are easier to read, I think, because words don’t get in the way. You start talking to people, and their body language might be one way but their words are distracting. Gorillas just grunt at you—I’m happy, I’m not happy. It’s very cut-and-dried.”

Leaving behind the apes she’d worked with was the hardest part of her decision to take the job in Houston. “I try to keep in touch, though,” she says, her walkie-talkie crackling once again. “I Skype with them.”

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