Skip to content

Passholders Go Ape for Gorillas

by Virginia R., Reporter-at-Large

Animal Kingdom was the venue today, March 28, 2009, for another event in the Passholder Speaker Series. This time the topic was “Disney’s Commitment to Gorillas – Working from the Ground Up.”  Joe Christman, Manager of Animal Operations and Dr. Tammy Bettinger, Sr. Research Biologist, shared their experiences of working with East African Gorillas and the Grouer Gorillas with emphasis on their recent conservation efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their enthusiasm and knowledge about gorillas kept everyone enthralled and there were plenty of questions; a good sign that Passholders were engaged.

Most of the classroom presentation surrounded the GRACE Project (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) that broke ground in January 2009 in the Tayna Nature Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Orphan gorilla babies do not usually survive when raised with adult gorillas, so this facility raises them as a family of “children”. When the orphans reach puberty, a period in their development which normally would induce gorillas to venture out on their own, researchers will release the orphan gorillas into the wild. Governments in the area of the reserve were afraid to begin such a project because they knew “If you build it, they will come”. They were afraid that they’d never be able to accommodate all the orphan gorillas that they knew would be showing up on their doorstep due to loss of habitat, mining, hunting, human encroachment, disease and civil unrest. They had a right to be concerned. The make-shift facility started with one gorilla in 2004. Conservationists now have 11 orphans in two African countries that will be relocated to the new facility when it’s completed later this year.

Of course, the people in area of the Tayna Nature Reserve aren’t being ignored. Before construction on the gorilla facility began, there was construction on the Muyisa and Bingi Schools for orphans as well as a medical facility for local people. Whatever the gorilla facility gets, the medical facility will receive as well. It’s a win win situation for humans and gorillas.

Joe and Tammy stressed the importance that Disney places in conservation around the world. In 2008, Disney provided funds for 108 separate projects in 44 countries. And where did that money come from? You! Each time you donate a dollar when making a purchase in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that money, ALL of it, goes to conservation projects. Disney covers all the costs. Of course your dollar only goes so far. There are several other organizations that are partnering to make GRACE Project a reality. And all that time that your kids spend playing in Club Penguin? They’re helping conservation too. Club Penguin donated 60,000 Canadian dollars to the school for orphans.

After the classroom presentation, all 80 Passholders were escorted into vans and transported to the gorilla barn; an experience that few people, including many Animal Kingdom Cast Members, haven’t done. Just as a bit of trivia, I bet you didn’t know that if you drive in the opposite direction on the Kilimanjaro Safari and taking a few turns, you’d end up at the gorilla barn. The animals were all on stage, but it was fun to see where they sleep and meet the keepers and trainers; a more enthusiastic group you may not find.  My sister’s house being the exception, the gorilla barn is probably the cleanest home I’ve ever been in.  There was absolutely no animal smell of any kind.  Only the “décor” gave it away as an area to house very large, strong animals.

Bored animals easily become unhappy animals and that can lead to unhealthy animals. Trainers are constantly busy dreaming up ways to present food to the gorillas so the food seems new or different.  Trainers add color or flavoring, freeze it, hide it in containers, grind it, smooth it…it goes on and on.  It made me grateful that my family doesn’t demand as much creativity when I feed them.

It’s important to remember that animals in Disney’s Animal Kingdom are never considered “pets” and cast members work very hard to keep the animal environment as natural to what each animal would experience in the wild. It would be pretty dangerous to keep a pet that weighs several hundred pounds and could rip off your arm in a heartbeat. With this in mind, training involves doing activities that assist in health and hygiene for the gorillas rather than doing tricks.  The keepers need to be able to check over each animal daily and give it medications when needed without it being a traumatic experience.  If a gorilla is used to showing their hand or other body part to the keeper, then asking them to do so in order to give treatment such as cleansing a cut would be more of a trained response rather than an invasive procedure.

Did you know, male gorillas are susceptible to heart disease? I was astounded to learn that trainers are working on teaching gorillas to show their chest area close to the mesh grill of their cage. This behavior allows the trainer to apply a gel in order to monitor the heartbeat using a portable electro-cardiogram. Most gorillas in captivity need to be anesthetized to be able to do a cardiac assessment. This isn’t the most accurate way to check for heart problems. Using a portable electro-cardiogram is far safer and accurate.  This procedure is cutting edge technology and it’s going on at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

There was so much more that we learned about gorillas today during this fantastic presentation, much more than I can share with you in this article. If you would like to learn more about the GRACE Project, please go to http://pasaprimates.org . If you have questions about life as a gorilla in Animal Kingdom, jot them down and bring them with you the next time you visit the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Answering animal questions seems to be one of the best parts of being a Cast Member in DAK.