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Lincoln Park Zoo

Infant Gorilla Nayembi is at the Lincoln Park Zoo's animal hospital as she recovers from surgery.

Lincoln Park Zoo releases details about injured infant gorilla

by Elspeth Lodge
March 05, 2013


Lincoln Park Zoo

Michael Brown-Palsgrove, zoological manager of the primate department and Dr. Kathryn Gamble, director of veterinary medicine at the zoo’s Dr. Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, help care for Nayembi.



Lincoln Park Zoo

Nayembi is receiving around the clock care from zoo staffers while she recovers.


Elspeth Lodge/MEDILL

Rollie, Nayembi's mom, is now back with her troop. Zoo staffers say Rollie is back to her usual routine.

Gorilla infant Nayembi won’t be re-introduced to her mother, or her troop, for weeks or months until she has recuperated from facial surgery performed at Lincoln Park Zoo. The surgery resulted from facial injuries suffered Feb. 20.

The infant was in “critical care” for several days in the zoo’s animal hospital after her procedure and remains there while she heals.

Now according to zoo staffers, Nayembi is back to doing everything an infant should do: playing, sleeping and eating.  

“She plays about four to five hours a day with her caretakers and is manipulating things,” Dr. Kathryn Gamble, director of veterinary medicine at the zoo’s Dr. Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, said in a statement.

“She was just starting to crawl in the exhibit and so now she’s very effectively crawling. Picking things up, putting them in her mouth. That’s what babies do. So she’s doing what she should be as a 3-month-old baby.”

The infant gorilla presented her injury unexpectedly on the Wednesday of her surgery.

She had serious trauma to her face, including some of the bones of her upper jaw, lip and nose.

It is both a “soft tissue” and “bone injury,”  Gamble said.

Since Nayembi only weighs about six to seven pounds, the injury on her face was “fairly impressive,” she said.

The gorilla was taken into surgery almost immediately after staffers discovered that Nayembi was hurt. First, staffers had to separate infant Nayembi and her mother, Rollie, from the other gorillas in the troop.

“When the injury presented, Rollie was with her and holding her baby, and brought her baby with her into holding, as is completely appropriate, and as we train them to do,” said Gamble. “The gorillas trained everyday, to move into different parts of the enclosure down below, and to make sure that they carry their infant with them and they stay very close with them.”

Staffers had to take Nayembi away from Rollie to give the infant the medical care she needed.

“When you have an infant that is being carried by its mother, and just because of its age, then you add to that that the baby would now be scared, so it’s going to be clinging even tighter,” Gamble said. “So the mother has to come down with the baby and then she herself had to be sedated. So we had two patients instead of one and that required the veterinary team to split up temporarily to make sure that the mother herself was taken care of. And then the team reunited basically going into provide care for the infant.”

It’s going to take awhile for Nayembi to recover from her injuries, so staffers are going to take it day by day, and see how things are going, said Megan Ross, vice president of animal care at the zoo.

Gamble mentioned that the infant had a procedure on Thursday to reevaluate, clean the injuries and make sure that the wound was healing properly.

“We’re going to have to wait and see what she shows us she needs,” Gamble said. “She has a lot of growing to do, so I do anticipate there will be other procedures, but at a future date which we can’t predict right now. It will depend on how the wound matures with her.”

At this point, Nayembi is still going through treatments after her first surgery.

“Treatments are going to be ongoing for quite a while,” Gamble said. “Certainly things like antibiotics would make complete sense, but other things like anti-inflammatories to keep the swelling down.”

Staffers want to keep Nayembi comfortable: “We want to make sure that we’re there, and we’re there 24-7, with a caretaker,” Gamble said. “And, that the veterinarians are there, either on call or on grounds, also 24-7.

“She’s a baby. The problem has been it’s been primarily medical, and now we’re trying to move from a medical situation that is fortunately stabilizing and healing along an appropriate course, to now taking care of her and taking care of her as a baby.

Nayembi will eventually be reintroduced to her social group or troop, but there is no telling when that will occur or if the infant’s mother and the troop will accept Nayembi back with open arms, said zoo staffers.

There have been plenty of instances where an infant has been removed and then gone back in with the great apes, Ross, said. And then there have been other times where it just hasn’t worked for the mother and the infant to go back together. So it really is a “case by case situation,” she said.

Tiffany Ruddle, zoo spokeswoman, added that ape surrogacy is well-documented.

“We’re just going to have to see how this goes specifically with her mom and her [Nayembi] and then figure out what the best game plan is,” Ross said. “And then if it’s surrogacy, it’s surrogacy— if it’s a different social group, it’s a different social group— we’ll just have to see.”

Gorillas are very social creatures, so zoo staffers are going to try to provide Nayembi with as much socialization as they can right now.

Socializing with other gorillas will be important for Nayembi, because the staffers want her to be an “appropriate-acting gorilla” later in life, Ross said.

In terms of how the injury occurred, zoo staffers know very little: The injury may have been inflicted by another gorilla, Lincoln Park Zoo President Kevin Bell wrote in a blog post on Feb.25. But, he also mentioned there were no signs of aggression in Nayembi’s troop.

“We don’t know that there was any aggression,” said Gamble when speaking of the gorillas in relation to Nayembi’s condition. “That’s the best we can say, that the group is watched all the time basically. We have people on the floor all the time but the injury happened in about a five-minute window when no one happened to be there. There is nothing we can say more about how it happened. It could have been many things. What we do know is that it was a trauma. We do know that she sustained an injury absolutely.”

No gorilla has shown any more aggression than the others, Ross said.

There are cameras in the building, but they didn’t catch the incident, Ruddle said in an email.

“Regenstein Center for African Apes is the most closely monitored exhibit in the entire zoo (behaviorists and interns meticulously track and record behavior for hours per day, every day, while endocrinologists assess stress/hormone fluctuations through fecal collection and analysis), but the complex nature of the enclosures makes 100 percent coverage impossible,” she said.