Wow! I just heard that our former gorilla, Timmy, is turning 50 on Saturday! Not that I need anything else to remind me how time flies, but this milestone certainly brings back many memories of our beloved Timmy. I was asked to write a blog to recall my experiences with Timmy while he resided here (one recollected in a previous blog), but after reminiscing, I realized the memory I cherish most is how Timmy demonstrated to all of us how surprisingly resilient animals can be.When I began my career in 1977 as an Animal Keeper at the Zoo, the gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, cats and various monkeys were housed in the old Main Building. Tim was our male gorilla, and he lived side-by-side with an older female named Yogi. They lived in separate enclosures and were not put together because, according to their keepers, they did not get along. In 1978, Tim and Yogi were moved to the new Cat and Primate Building (now the Primate, Cat & Aquatics Building), and in 1981, Yogi went to another zoo and we received a female gorilla named Emmy from the Columbus Zoo.
Gorillas can be very particular about their partners, and although Emmy was expected to provide Timmy with companionship, Timmy never warmed up to her. They lived in the same enclosure but he always kept her at a distance. Unfortunately, in 1982, Emmy died and Timmy lived alone for the next 8 years. Lone male gorillas were not uncommon in Zoos back then, but improvements in captive gorilla management has made solitary males rare in Zoos today.
Then, in 1990, with high hopes, we received an older, non-reproductive female gorilla named Kribe Kate as a companion for Timmy. Kate, a very socially experienced gorilla, skillfully approached Timmy in a non-threatening way. Timmy responded positively, and in a very short time, they became “a couple.” We even observed breeding behaviors from Timmy for the first time. This was quite a revelation. Thus, it was decided that Timmy should have the opportunity to breed with younger, reproductive females. As a wild-born animal, his genes, previously unrepresented, would further diversify the captive gorilla population. The decision was made to send Timmy to the Bronx Zoo where he would be placed with a group of younger female gorillas and their youngsters.
I was very concerned about this move for two reasons: (1) Timmy’s lack of gorilla social experience and (2) the Zoo had been his only home since 1966. How would Timmy adjust to such a radical move? He was already over 30 years old and past “middle-age” for a male gorilla. Would the stress of such a move negatively impact his health?
But Timmy was transferred to the Bronx Zoo in 1991, and, as before, I learned what an amazing gorilla Timmy is. Not only did he make the move without a problem, but after a successful introduction to his new troop, he became a model silverback. He exhibited all the proper behaviors of a male silverback: leading his troop on and off exhibit, playing gently with youngsters in the group, breeding the females and producing valuable offspring (ensuring his wild genetics would be represented and benefit the population as a whole). As animals do, Timmy demonstrated an incredible resiliency after leaving the wild at a very early age and living a very atypical gorilla social life for his first 32 years.