Chad Staples, a father of four and director of Mogo Wildlife Park, a small private zoo in the town of the same name on Australia’s southeastern coast, says raising baby gorillas is in many ways similar to caring for a newborn.
The similarities are striking. “Even just looking into his eyes, it’s like you’re looking at a newborn baby and absorbing the entire universe with every blink of an eye,” Staples told CNN of Caius, the small, wide-eyed gorilla he raised from birth.
For the first months, Caius slept in Staples’ bedroom, and was regularly fed milk and changed his diapers by a zookeeper—a difficult task to do on a primate much stronger than a human baby and capable of grasping with both hands and feet.
“With the baby, you just have to deal with some little hands that might help, but with the gorilla, he was really right to make it very difficult,” he said. “I just laughed and said to myself, ‘Oh, my God.'”
As he got older, Caius would cling to the zookeeper’s back as they toured the zoo.
Then on Friday, Staples watched with wonder – but mostly relief – as 10-month-old Caius shared his breakfast of sweet potatoes and tomatoes with Ji Ann, a 42-year-old female gorilla unrelated to him, who now seemed happy. Assuming the parenting duties in the gorilla house in the zoo.
“I’m so happy to see the two of them together now,” said Staples. “It was a hell of a ride.”
Caius was born at the Wildlife Park last October to first-time parents, 10-year-old mother Kipensi and 17-year-old father Kisanee, a huge silver dog weighing around 220 kilograms (485 pounds).
Newborn gorillas are usually smaller than human babies, and Caius seemed to be doing well at 2.2 kg (4.85 lb) – until Caius, who was gigantic compared to his newborn, took the infant from his mother.
“It was terrifying because you just wondered if he was going to do something stupid,” said Staples. “He was actually holding the baby very gently. But, you know, Caius weighed just over 2kg…so that’s a huge difference in size.”
For 14 hours, zoo staff tried to persuade Kesaney to return the baby – giving him food that needed two hands to hold and moving the females – Kepensi and her mother Kripa – to different areas of the gorilla’s home for him to follow. And put the baby down.
“We’ll never know why, but I like to think that maybe Dad tried to intervene because he saw something was wrong with Mom,” Staples said.
Kippense failed to pass the placenta, which was a concern for veterinarians who were concerned about the risk of infection, and she did not ask her partner to return the baby, as Staples said she might have been expected to do in the wild.
Eventually, Keysaney put the baby aside and the zoo staff rushed to grab him. By then, the baby was hungry, so they bottle fed it and tried to take it back to its mother and grandmother the next day.
“They just walked right up to him and looked at him and walked away,” Staples said. “Then they proceeded to go over it to get food and they were kind of interested but not really as interested as we expected.”
Zoo staff intended to feed him and try again, but when Staples picked him up, he said, “his behavior changed.”
“He had lost his colour, and looked very dull in his eyes, so we rushed him to the vet’s building, and he started crashing really fast.”
Caius, who was only a day old, was diagnosed with septic pneumonia.
“He’s crashed like six times where he’s basically been revived and, you know, adrenaline shots and all this stuff to get his little body working again,” Staples said.
“The vets were talking about euthanasia. The doctors were talking about maybe he wouldn’t be able to stay through the night.
So Staples sat up all night with the little gorilla sleeping on his chest.
“This was what gave him the most relief and he was actually able to control his heart rate and breathing, just skin to skin contact and feeling the heartbeat like he was doing from his mother.”
Then Caius began to improve and grow.
The nappies were abandoned when they started to go out more, and then came the introduction of the other zoo workers, so that Caius would not bond too much with his main caregiver.
Caius has moved out of the Staples house inside the zoo and into the gorilla enclosure, in a barn next door to his new adoptive mother, J. Ann.
The goal was to get the two to interact enough that they would eventually share a can. But resettling baby gorillas comes with huge risks.
His biggest fear? “The gorillas will kill him. Because this has happened with gorillas and chimpanzees all over the world,” Staples said.
Two days later, those fears were allayed when G-Anne took on her new role.
“She’s a beautiful girl and always shows signs that she wants this as much as we do,” he said. “I’m not worried about it anymore. You know, it’s always in the back of your head. You know what if? But it’s not the same.”
For now, the couple will be spending some time together before Caius is ready to make his public debut at the zoo, which also houses giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers and lemurs.
Staples says Kaius seems to recognize him and hopes the connection continues.
“As soon as I get close to him, he shoves his face into my face and takes a big beautiful breath, and he holds on tight, you know, and he tries to kiss, and all that sweet stuff,” Staples said.
“I hope there is a link to his life. It will be very special.”
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