Return of 'punk'-like son may bring life from ashes 250-pound gorilla goes home to Pa. zoo where fire killed his parents

January 07, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- He's a proven stud, winner of a Best of Cincinnati award for siring five western-lowland gorillas this year alone.

And in the words of his current curator, he is in that "punk" stage -- constantly charging the bars, smacking a female on the side as he passes her, saying: "Hey, I'm running this group."

Chaka, an 11-year-old, 250-pound gorilla whose saddle is just starting to gray, left Philadelphia two years ago on a breeding loan. His parents were Samantha and John, two of the 23 animals who perished in the Dec. 24 electrical fire at the Philadelphia Zoo's World of Primates.

Before the tragedy, planners thought that Chaka had done his part to propagate his species. Now, with the loss of his parents and three siblings, Chaka is likely to be heading home and taking his place at the center of a new troop of gorillas.

jTC The Philadelphia Zoo is at least a year away from rebuilding its primate collection. First, it must consider whether it wants to rebuild the $6 million World of Primates or take advantage of a decade's worth of thinking about the best ways to house and exhibit the animals.

"The individuals are irreplaceable," said Andy Baker, the zoo's curator of primates and small mammals. "We really had pretty special animals."

Most of the dead animals -- six gorillas, three Bornean orangutans, four white-handed gibbons, two ruffed lemurs, two mongoose lemurs, and six ring-tail lemurs -- were born at the zoo and spent their entire lives there.

"As for the species," Mr. Baker said, "we can probably put together a collection pretty similar to the one we lost."

An intricate system of animal procurement awaits. It does not involve pith helmets or checkbooks. In most cases, it is unlawful to bring primates in from the wild, and the only money spent will be for transporting the delicate creatures.

In fact, zoo officials intentionally do not place monetary values on the animals for fear of encouraging bounty hunting.

The modern zoo acquires its endangered animals through loans and gifts, all under the eye of a computerized, continent-wide network established by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Each species is covered by a survival plan that keeps a close watch on the animals' bloodlines, health and sociability.

The gatekeeper for gorillas is Dan Wharton, director of the Central Central Park Wildlife Center in New York. His is the best overview of the 340 gorillas who live at 48 institutions in the United States.

Mr. Wharton knows who should breed with whom, who is agreeable by nature, who is ornery. He is also aware of each zoo's needs, although they all share a hunger for more gorillas, among the most popular attractions in American zoos.

Over the years, the Philadelphia Zoo has lent several orangutans to sister institutions, but it has made gifts of them all.

The trickiest matter is mixing gorillas. One reason is that the zoo already has seven on loan to other zoos.

Jessica, 15, is in San Diego, with two of her offspring, one of which the Philadelphia Zoo owns. Anakka, Chaka's half-brother, is in Columbus, Ohio, and has not bred. Haloko lives at the National Zoo, and the Philadelphia Zoo owns two of her children, Kiki, a female at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, and Baraka, a male produced in Washington.

It is not as simple a matter as calling the animals back into the fold.

"Most of them are in stable situations at the zoos they're in," Mr. Baker explained.

Also, gorillas are more volatile than other primates.

"Personality can make a big difference," he said. "We'd want to pick females who could get along with Chaka."

Another consideration is the layout of the Philadelphia Zoo's primate grounds. Other than a moat, there is no barrier between the animals' habitat and the public's viewing area.

"We may not want animals who have a reputation for throwing things, a rock or some other, less pleasant item," Mr. Baker said.

Chaka arrived in Cincinnati in July 1994 on a mission. The zoo had six female gorillas ready to breed and no interest from Collosus, a 28-year-old male.

Collosus spent most of his first two decades in a private setting, never seeing another gorilla.

To socialize him, planners placed him for a few years with a nonbreeding female at the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida. In 1993, he moved to Cincinnati, where six females awaited him.

"Many of the females even approached him when they were in heat, and he just basically showed no interest," said Mike Dulaney, general curator at the Cincinnati Zoo.

So the curators looked down the road, to Columbus, where Chaka and Anakka were on loan. Chaka did not get along with the Columbus females, Mr. Dulaney said. That zoo needed to move him, and Cincinnati was looking for a proven breeder.

Chaka turned out not to be that, but "he showed signs he could be," Mr. Dulaney said.

The Philadelphia native was paired with five Cincinnati females who were going on two years without a breeding male. In short order, all became pregnant, helping put the Cincinnati Zoo over the top as the most successful gorilla-breeding center in the United States.

Mr. Dulaney feels the native's return is right. "He's a good starting point for Philly," he said.

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