ABC News’ Matt Gutman Reports:
A group of faux-fur wearing zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo are hoping a rather odd-looking experiment will save an orphaned 8-week-old western lowland gorilla named Gladys.
Days after she was born in January, Gladys’ mother rejected her. Weighing 3 pounds, Gladys was as fragile as a human infant. She needed a mother to adopt her, but her zoo, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, didn’t have one. But the Cincinnati Zoo did, and she arrived at her new home Feb. 22.
ABC News’ Matt Gutman got exclusive access to the project in which 10 human surrogates are preparing Gladys to be united with a new gorilla mother. One of those surrogates is Ron Evans, the zoo’s primate team leader, who took us to Gladys’ baby pad where the gorilla nurturing takes place.
“I always use a gorilla accent when I talk to Gladys,” Evans said, as he belted out what zoologists call belch vocalizations, akin to cooing for gorillas.
But the mammal-mimicking doesn’t stop with a “gorilla accent.” The surrogates must also look the part, so they all wear faux fur while handling her.
“I squeeze her pretty tight. I groom her just like a gorilla,” said Evans, picking at Gladys’ downy fur.
For Gladys to be integrated with and accepted by a new potential gorilla mother, her trainers must teach her how to behave like a gorilla. When it’s too rough, he says, she’ll squawk.
Weighing 10 pounds, she drinks 2 pounds of formula a day, and in 10 years could weigh about 200 pounds. In the interim, Gladys remains a squirmy infant gorilla, curious and wide-eyed at the sight of the cameras invading her baby room.
Gladys spends most of her time sleeping and eating, but also gets pretty playful, stretching, grabbing, and getting piggy back rides. Evans calls all of this interaction “Gorillafication,” which preps her to join the rest of the gorillas as early as next month.
Evans has deployed a team of 10 surrogates partly to handle Gladys’ energy but also so that she doesn’t get attached to them, and so they don’t get too attached to her.
“You’d be crazy to say you haven’t become attached to her, but as much as I like holding Gladys and being with Gladys, the day she goes in with a gorilla mom is the day I’m going to be happiest,” Evans said.
Gladys has begun being able to eat some cooked solid foods like sweet potatoes and carrots, but is still bottle-fed five times a day.