Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

It’s morning. Still dark.A cold fog lifts. The barking starts at dusk: wolves. Then the chirping: birds. Then the squeaking: monkeys. The North Carolina Zoo, the largest zoo in the world with more land than any other, sounds wild when it wakes. The setting, in rural Randolph County, separates this place from most other zoos. It is made up of 2,200 acres in the quiet country.

On this morning, the first humans arrive around 7. They left the land to the animals at night. Inside the cages or exhibits or pens or pastureland, anything could have happened. What if one got loose? What if one died? What if they fought? Even though the people have taken every precaution, these are
wild animals.

Light erodes the mystery. When we can see the source of sounds, we feel at peace with them. They are no longer invisible threats. So for those first few minutes every day, when light brings comfort to the noises — the roars and the chirping and the howls — the zoo is simply a wild symphony.

• • •

Aaron Jesue pulls into his spot in the parking lot of the commissary at 7:15 a.m. He’s a little late. He’s a dad. And today it was his job to get his 2½-year-old daughter to day care. She didn’t want to go. But he convinced her, and now he’s finally made it to work.

On the back of Jesue’s Nissan Sentra is a license plate that reads “SILVRBCK,” referring to silverbacks or male apes. Above that is a bumper sticker: “Tails are for Monkeys,” referring to the most basic fact anybody should know about gorillas, which is that they are not monkeys.

Jesue dreamed of being a gorilla keeper when he was a boy growing up in Michigan. He watched the old King Kong movies and the Mighty Joe Young film (from 1949) with his dad. He went to school at Michigan State University and enrolled in the zoo and aquarium program, just to have this life. He came here first as an intern in 2006, working with chimpanzees. Then he was hired as a full-time gorilla keeper. His wife moved down here and took a teaching job. They’ve started their own family; they have a little girl and a boy on the way in April.

The gorillas are part of the family.

Jesue steps inside the commissary and picks up six tubs of food — four for the adult gorillas and two smaller tubs for the nursing mothers. Those nursing mothers have produced the biggest news at the zoo in years, two babies that were born three weeks apart this past August. The food tubs are labeled for each gorilla: Nkosi, the male; and Olympia, Jamani, and Acacia, the females. Total, the food weighs 75 pounds, and this happens every day. The meals consist of beans, kiwi, green peppers, avocado, banana, cabbage, lettuce, and carrots. Nkosi loves the carrots especially.

Jesue loads the food into the back of a short-bed Ford Ranger pickup. On the bumper and back window are more stickers: “Beat your chest if you love gorillas,” “Gr8 Ape,” and again, “Tails are for Monkeys.”

And then he drives off, taking a winding path through much of the zoo’s four miles of service road until he reaches Forest Glade, the gorilla exhibit. He walks around the back entrance and into the holding area, off limits to visitors, where the gorillas sleep most nights. The lights are set to a timer, and they turn on at least 15 minutes before the keepers arrive.

On most days, the babies are already awake, and so are the females. But Nkosi, the father and leader, typically is found still snoozing. The keepers like to joke that he always wants 10 more minutes. Jesue is Nkosi’s primary keeper. The two have a bond, something like that Mighty Joe Young dream Jesue imagined years ago.

Nearly every day, Jesue opens the holding area and starts Nkosi’s day by softly saying something he’s wanted to say to a gorilla his entire life: “Hey, buddy.”

• • •

When people began planning the North Carolina Zoo in the 1970s, among the first mammal they put on exhibit was a gorilla named Ramar. Every captive creature at the zoo is given a number based on its place in the kingdom; Ramar’s number was No. 1. (The first exhibit, built in 1974, included two reptiles, giant Galápagos tortoises named Tort and Retort.)

Ramar was a celebrity.

A private trainer captured him in Africa when he was a newborn and brought him to the United States. In the early 1970s, he starred in a commercial and once was on “The Merv Griffin Show.” People came from everywhere to see him. Before zoos and before we actually met the animals, most humans thought of gorillas as chest-thumping, man-hating, King Kong beasts. But Ramar was funny. In an American Tourister commercial from 1970, Ramar tossed a suitcase around in a cage. The ad intended to show the suitcase’s durability, but people took something else from it entirely. They liked Ramar. He hopped on the suitcase; he hung from the top of the cage. He showed personality.

As Ramar grew, his private trainer couldn’t keep him any longer. So he sold the gorilla to the new zoo in Asheboro, an ambitious zoo that wanted to start breeding gorillas.

North Carolinians are animal people. We have horses and sea turtles on the coast, elk and black bear in the mountains, and cows and pigs in all the fences in between. But Ramar was different. His face had expressions. He blinked. He walked upright. He grabbed things with opposable thumbs. He was different in that he was like us. People came from miles around to see him. He was the first star of the North Carolina Zoo.

As much as humans liked Ramar, so did females of his own kind. The zoo brought in several females to breed with Ramar. They did their best to woo him. But as personable as he was on television, he was standoffish about his first mate. He never showed interest in any of them, and in the 1980s, the rapidly expanding North Carolina Zoo had to send its most popular animal away.

In came a silverback named Carlos. He quickly took a liking to a female named Hope. And in 1989, Carlos and Hope gave birth to Kwanza.

People came. The zoo set up waiting areas for the exhibit, as Kwanza grew from a baby who wouldn’t leave his mother’s side into an independent male.

When male gorillas grow older, they challenge their fathers for dominance of the group, so the N.C. Zoo shipped Kwanza away. He’s now at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Ramar, meanwhile, is still alive. He’s at the Brookfield Park Zoo in Chicago. He’s 44 years old and in “retirement,” meaning he’s no longer breeding. A national database contains a species survival plan, which is very specific about which gorillas can breed and which can’t.

Still, Ramar remains one of the most important gorillas in the United States, the one who helped us learn to love them and not fear them.

• • •

Six years ago, a group of 60 international researchers went to California to start an unprecedented genome project on gorillas. They used a gorilla named Kamilah at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. First they took some skin cell samples. And then they sequenced the gorilla’s genes. The study took five years, and in 2012, the group released its findings.

The study showed only 1.75 percent of the gorilla’s genetic sequence was different from the human sequence — we’re far closer to gorillas than we ever thought. That percentage is just less than a chimpanzee’s sequence, which is only 1.37 percent different from ours. Gorillas are larger, though, so they look more like us. Easier to relate.

The data also showed that our evolutionary separation from gorillas happened much longer ago than previously thought. Gorillas became their own species about 10 million years ago. And then chimps and humans separated some 6 million years ago.

As humans multiplied, we began to take the gorillas’ space. Now gorilla populations are dwindling. The western lowland gorilla — the type of gorilla on display at the North Carolina Zoo — is the most widespread subspecies of gorilla. But even it is critically endangered, with the population falling by 60 percent over the past 25 years. And other animals aren’t doing much better. In Kenya last year, poachers killed 350 bull elephants.

About 35 years ago, zoos started gathering people who care about animals. What once was an effort to attract visitors — put a monkey in a cage and see the people come! — now is a little bit of both. Rare animals attract people. People pay fees. Fees go to save the rare animals.

Zoos are doing important work.

Dr. Rich Bergl, the North Carolina Zoo’s curator of conservation and research, has traveled to the Nigeria-Cameroon border studying another subspecies of gorilla, the Cross River Gorilla, of which there are only about 300 remaining in existence. His studies are made difficult by poachers, who kill and sell the gorillas for meat. On a planet where fewer and fewer wild places exist, zoos and breeding programs like those at the North Carolina Zoo are becoming the best resources for trying to keep the planet breathing with diversity. If they didn’t exist, the animals might not one day, either.

And imagine that. What if one day in the future, a father looks at his child and asks, “What’s the sound an elephant makes?” only to have nothing real to reference?

gorilla 1

• • •

The gorillas sit between the baboons and the lemurs.

At the North Carolina Zoo, the Forest Glade exhibit — the gorilla exhibit — is a large pad, circled by large rocks and tall bamboo. On two sides are viewing windows, and in the middle are trees and sticks and shrubbery and plenty of room to romp. It’s not a cage.

The exhibit has seen residents come and go since the days of Ramar, but few times have been as exciting as the past 18 months.

For 22 years after Kwanza’s birth, the zoo hoped for another baby gorilla. But nothing came along. The zoo expanded its Africa area, adding elephants and giraffes. Visitors can walk past just about every important species of animal that lives in one of the world’s most diverse continents. Funny things occurred along the way. Elephants keep cool by grabbing tusk-fulls of dirt and flinging it on their backs. Now, the elephants at the North Carolina Zoo have a red tint to their backs, thanks to our red clay. Two years ago, a baby giraffe was born, wobbly-legged and big-hearted. Elsewhere in the zoo, the polar bear exhibit has become the most popular place in the whole park.

The gorilla exhibit remained largely unchanged for two decades. But in 2012, a wave of life.

Only two gorillas were born in all of the United States in the previous year. Only one had been born in this state. Ever. But in August 2012, two babies were born three weeks apart, to different mothers, to the same father. Half brothers.

The older one is playful and likes to climb. The younger one still clings to his mother.

They will never know the jungles of their ancestors. They will never struggle for a meal. They will survive on the love of humans.

They are great-grandsons of the first gorilla born in captivity anywhere in the world, a gorilla named Colo, who’s 56 years old and still alive in the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. There are statues of Colo. She’s that important. One of her grandsons is Nkosi. He’s a 410-pound silverback whose name means “leader” in Swahili. He’s the father of these two half-brothers.

The first came on August 4, a boy named Bomassa. The second came on August 31, another boy named Apollo. They rarely interact with their father, but they watch him from the clutches of their mothers. Every day, they gain more independence.

They sleep on concrete at night and play in the dirt in the day. For all of the things that the North Carolina Zoo has brought to our state since it opened — from Tort and Retort to Ramar — these are the two closest things to wild miracles.

Both healthy. Both rare. Both carrying the genes of their diminishing species and keeping the world a little more diverse for the next generation.

• • •

Nkosi is a dad. He scratches his rear in front of guests. He sleeps during the day. He shows affection in odd ways. He never touches his kids, and he eats more than anyone in the family. And like many other males, he still has some little boy inside him: He has gingivitis, and the only mouthwash he likes to taste is ACT SpongeBob Ocean Berry dental rinse.

But let him hear an unfamiliar noise. Let him spot an intruder in the home. Let that happen. Let his eyes snap and stare, and you’ll see: You don’t mess with Dad.

Nkosi’s nickname is Nik. He’s one of the most friendly male gorillas in the United States. He’s 21 years old, and he’s the dominant member of the troop. Nik was here during the time of the most upheaval in the gorilla exhibit.

For two decades, the exhibit saw little in the way of new life. But in 2009, the three female gorillas on display died in the same year. They were all older and died of natural causes. The first to go was Hope, the female who gave birth to Kwanza in 1989. A few months later, Donna and Katie died within two weeks of each other. There were a few months when Nik was alone.

From the deaths, though, came opportunity. This transition was a chance to bring in younger females, gorillas who could breed.

Jamani, now 13, came from the San Diego Zoo in 2010. Then Acacia, now 17, came from Oklahoma City. And in July 2011, the Atlanta Zoo transferred Olympia, who was born in 1996 and named in honor of the Olympic Games in that city. Within a year, Forest Glade was a whole new exhibit, and Nik had a whole new family.

They got along well. The keepers say this is one of the best groups in the country in terms of camaraderie.

The females have a clear power structure between them. Olympia is the most dominant, so dominant that sometimes she can overwhelm Nik. Acacia is second. Then Jamani. But that order has shifted a bit since August.

Shortly after the two babies were born, Olympia tried to care for both babies — a sign of that dominance. But one day, Jamani, the lowest-ranking female, snapped back and slapped Olympia away. Now, both mothers — Olympia with Apollo; Jamani with Bomassa — spend time near each other. Often they lie on the rocks near the front window of the exhibit, just feet apart from each other, with the babies asleep on their chests.

Meanwhile, Acacia, who has no children, roams freely. She picks up food as she goes and scans the exhibit for her own entertainment. She seems to be the most clever, a solo female trying to get her way in an exhibit where two mothers receive the most attention. But those days will end soon.

In February, the zoo made another announcement: Acacia is pregnant. She is scheduled to give birth this summer, in either June or July.

So by August, the Forest Glade exhibit will likely have three big-eyed babies running around. All of the females will be mothers of newborns, and Nkosi will be a dad three times over. And Jesue and the other keepers will have a new family member to watch over.

“It was almost as exciting as when you’ve got your own kid,” Jesue says. “You have that worry zone. Is it going to be OK?”

gorilla 2

• • •

Days are simple and routine at the gorilla exhibit. Jesue and the other keepers clean Forest Glade from 8 to 9 every morning. If the weather’s warm enough, they’ll let the gorillas come out of the holding area.

Nik often runs straight to the front window and sits, putting his silver back toward the crowds. He gathers food and eats off of branches, leaf by leaf. Olympia and Jamani stumble out with their babies in their arms. Acacia explores.

At least twice a week, the keepers put the gorillas through training sessions. They call the gorillas to a caged area — keepers never touch gorillas — and through the fence, the keepers will ask the gorillas to work with them. When a keeper says, “Arm,” the gorillas put their arms against the gate. The same with feet, chests, legs, and backs. “Back” is one of the more interesting scenarios. In the wild, a gorilla would never turn his back to a human. But here there’s trust between humans and animals. When Jesue says, “Back,” Nik simply spins around and sits.

“They know far more of the English language than we know of gorilla language,” Jesue says.

At 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. every day, the keepers start a public feeding. The crowds love this activity, watching humans direct gorillas simply by talking to them.

Jesue climbs to the top of a platform that overlooks the exhibit. He needs to get Nik stationed. If not, the silverback will eat more than his share of the food.

“Hey, buddy,” Jesue says. “Why don’t you come over here?”

Jesue’s tone is always calm. A gorilla can sense frustrated swerves in his keeper’s voice. The gorilla doesn’t respond to yelling.

“You don’t want to come?” Jesue says. “OK, I bet you Jamani will eat.”

“Well, then,” Nik seems to say back. He rises from his seat in front of the window and makes his way to a spot underneath Jesue’s platform.

Jesue tosses him a carrot bite. Nik snatches it from the air with one hand, like a baseball player. He blinks. He eats.

Jesue throws a clump of lettuce deeper into the exhibit for the females. He tosses Nik another carrot. One hand. Blink. Eat. Jesue tosses another clump of lettuce. Catch. Blink. Eat.

Jesue shows Nik his empty hands. The feeding is finished. Nik rises up and walks back to his seat in front of the glass.

North Carolina Zoo
4401 Zoo Parkway
Asheboro, N.C. 27205
(800) 488-0444
nczoo.org

This story was published on

Graff is a writer and editor in North Carolina. He is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others. Stories he’s written or edited have been picked up by the Nieman Storyboard, gangrey.com, longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com. He was a presenter at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and the 2008 Poynter Institute Sports Writing Summit.

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