The Cincinnati Zoo is training human beings to be temporary surrogate "mothers" for an infant gorilla that was rejected by her natural mother shortly after birth.
The 4.7-pound female gorilla was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas on January 29, but was rejected by the mother shortly after. After no viable surrogate gorilla mothers could be found to rear the infant, the Cincinnati Zoo stepped in. It had a plan to use human surrogates to socialize the infant for a future life with a gorilla surrogate and eventual gorilla family.
"Gorillas are not a lot different than people in that they have their own language and rules of etiquette," Ron Evans, primate team leader for the Cincinnati Zoo, told ABC News. "They have to start learning these rules from the day they are born."
Evans said he is training a team of 7-10 surrogates to be with the infant around the clock. The team will work in 8-hour shifts for 4-5 months to teach the baby all the same things she would have learned if she had been reared by her real mother, and ensure that she develops the social behaviors required to reach adulthood.
"They [the surrogacy team] are very familiar with ape behavior," said Evans. "We will fine-tune things by creating a laundry list of behaviors we expect to see at different levels and ask one of the top people in the team to initiate each new behavior that we have."
It won't be an easy task. Surrogates are expected not only to be with the baby constantly and monitor her health, but also to mimic primate behavior - even making gorilla sounds and wearing a furry black vest when they hold the infant. The surrogates will introduce new behaviors to the baby, depending on the speed of her development.
"Gorillas have about 13 different vocalizations, so you need to know how to speak to the baby given whatever the circumstance is," said Evans. "We also need to teach our team how to hold the baby at each stage based on what the mother gorilla would be doing."
There are a problems that can arise during the surrogacy. Evans stressed the need to adjust the speed at which new behaviors are introduced to the needs of the individual gorilla. "The trick is that you really need to listen to what you are seeing from the gorillas and go at their pace," Evans said.
At the end of the 4-5-month surrogacy period, the moment of truth will arrive. The infant will be introduced to her surrogate gorilla mom.
"Hopefully the mother comes in and picks the baby up or comforts the baby, and really it's just a matter of monitoring their relationship at this point," said Evans. "It's our goal not to take the baby back; we will if we don't see everything going just right, but if we make all these preparations it should work out pretty well."
Evans said that in general, a mother with a baby in a group of gorillas gets a big status boost.
"Most everybody is respectful of babies," said Evans. "They are very interested in the baby. I expect controlled, gentle, but strong interest in the baby. Hopefully the surrogate mom is reasonably protective and the groups respectfully let her have her space."
After the infant is successfully adopted by her new mom, the Zoo's surrogate team will slowly introduce new gorillas into the mix.
"We'll have one big happy family," said Evans.