Before the morning of Thursday, June 26, two-year-old Western lowland gorilla, Finyezi (Fin), had never been seen on public view by guests at the Oklahoma City Zoo, but all of that changed that sunny morning, when he explored the gorilla habitat with his family troop for the first time!
While many on-looking Zoo guests may have not realized the importance of that moment in time, we (Fin’s caretakers) all watched with butterflies in our stomachs as we witnessed him reach the ultimate milestone, one we’ve been working toward for two years. Here’s Fin’s story…
Caring for Fin
In the early hours of June 19, 2018, OKC Zoo primate caretakers and volunteers welcomed an endangered baby gorilla named Finyezi, meaning ‘firefly’ in the Zulu language of South Africa. Shortly after Fin’s birth, it was observed that his mother, 22-year-old Ndjole, was not providing maternal care for him. Following this observation, his caretakers made the decision to hand raise him behind-the-scenes, a rewarding job that ‘took a village.’
For the first six months of his life, Fin was cared for by an extraordinary team of volunteers and caretakers 24/7. During bottle-feeding sessions, he began learning how to grip a felt-covered vest, worn by his caretakers – which simulated how an infant gorilla would cling to its mother’s hair for comfort. Caretakers focused on creating an environment that would encourage Fin’s natural behaviors.
Because gorillas are very social and complex animals, it was important from day one for Fin to ultimately integrate into the Zoo’s family troop. As he continued to grow, Fin spent a lot of time near his curious troop members. While not sharing physical space, Fin’s interactions with the troop helped his care team to identify who could look after Fin in the future.
Finding Fin’s Surrogate Mom
At six months old, it was determined through careful observation that 34-year-old, Emily, was the best candidate to become Fin’s surrogate mom. To prepare, Fin’s caretakers spent time ensuring that he was ready for the transition by providing him with the opportunity to explore the space he would share with Emily. Once it was concluded that Fin could safely navigate the space, introductions with Emily began.
Surrogate gorillas are rare, and every one is a unique relationship. Though building a bond between surrogate mother and fostered offspring can take time, it was essential for Fin to be cared for by another gorilla. Through this developing relationship, Fin has learned many things about being a gorilla, and Emily has continued to teach him well.
In the weeks following their initial introduction, Fin began to view Emily as his mom. Emily’s presence and care helped Fin to build confidence in himself. He began enjoying new play elements, such as barrels and ropes to climb. All the while, Emily continued to keep up with his newfound energy levels.
Once the two became comfortable with one another, the care team’s next steps were to begin introducing Emily and Fin to the rest of the family troop - comprised of another infant, one juvenile, and three adults.
Fin’s Final Introductions
During the initial stages of the introductions, the troop was provided with constant access to see, smell and hear Emily and Fin. After this proved successful, his care team began encouraging members of the troop to share space with Emily and Fin for short periods of time.
First to meet Fin was his maternal mom, Ndjole; his father, Togo; two-year-old, Azinza, and her mom, Mikella. The introductions were gradual - with each group member spending only a few hours at a time with Fin and Emily. Sometimes, they would be introduced individually, and other times, introductions would occur with multiple group members. Rubi, Emily’s five-year-old daughter, was the final member of the troop to share space with Fin.
Young gorillas like Rubi tend to be extremely energetic and inquisitive. The care team was therefore concerned that she would demonstrate overly rambunctious behaviors toward Fin. It was important for the care team to have confidence in the adult troop members’ willingness to come to Fin’s aid, if necessary, and in Fin’s ability to hold his own in Rubi’s playful presence. Rubi’s initial roughness with Fin waned, and after a while, it was clear that Rubi cared for Fin and welcomed him as a member of the troop.
At first, Fin showed caution when meeting each of his troop members, but in time, he has grown comfortable with his troop – a testament to the caretakers deep understanding of Fin’s body language and behavior as they eased him into each encounter.
Fin’s favorite playmate is Azinza. Comparable in size and energy-levels, the duo spends much of the day chasing one another around their behind-the-scenes habitat.
Watching Fin’s relationship develop with his biological mother, however, has been the most heartwarming for his caretakers. While Fin still seeks the majority of his comfort from his surrogate mom, Emily, he has increasingly gravitated toward Ndjole for support as well. Mikella has also recently indicated she is looking out for him.
After the final meet-and-greet with Rubi in March 2020, caretakers began to focus their attention on ‘baby-proofing’ the outdoor gorilla habitat –as he continued to develop strong bonds with his troop members behind-the-scenes.
Fin’s First Day Outside
When the day finally came for Fin to venture outside with his entire troop for the first time, we were all feeling a mix of emotions. Over two years after Fin’s birth, we were filled with pride as we watched everything we’d been working toward become a reality.
As Fin entered the outdoor habitat, he immediately took notice of the guests on the other side of the habitat glass and sought comfort from Emily. This was perhaps the most curious observation for Fin in those first moments outside. However, he quickly began to focus on other aspects of the experience.
At first, Fin stayed near Emily as she foraged for her morning selection of fruits and vegetables but after some time, he began to cautiously explore on his own. He even engaged in playtime with Rubi and Azinza.
The entire experience was described by his caretakers as a great success.
The Future for Fin
Now that group integration is complete and Fin’s first time outside is behind him, the troop has begun a new routine. Every morning, they receive their breakfast and one-on-one time with their caretakers which is important for training. They then head outside together and immediately begin foraging for food throughout their habitat, weather allowing. When outside, Fin can be spotted riding on Emily’s back, climbing the firehouse near the rock structures, running and playing with Rubi and Azinza, and even taking an occasional nap.
Between Noon and 1 p.m. every day, the troop comes inside for a short period, as Fin transitions to outdoor living. After that, they spend their afternoon outdoors – foraging, resting and playing – then, come back inside for the day for more foraging and one-on-one time with their care team. Fin’s confidence in his ability to move throughout the habitat by himself continues to grow each passing day.
Because infant gorillas nurse from their mothers for up to three and half years, Fin receives a bottle from his caretakers twice a day. He is also hand-fed fruits and primate biscuits three times a day, as part of his diet. Once they settle indoors for the evening, they begin building their nests. Most nights, Fin shares the nest with Emily.
Fin’s latest milestone was monumental for him and his care team, but there is another milestone we’re working toward next – providing Fin access to an indoor habitat. Because the indoor habitats have tall ceilings and can prove difficult for an infant gorilla to navigate, caretakers will soon modify the habitat to ensure it is easier for him to move more safely throughout the room.
With all of this change, Fin is still the same lovable gorilla he was when being hand-reared but he is becoming more of a gorilla, now that he spends all of his time with the troop. Looking back, we are all incredibly proud with how far he has come and the rewarding journey that has brought him to where he is today. We also remain thankful for all of the support we received from our volunteers along the way.
Guests can see Fin with his troop in-person daily at the Zoo’s gorilla habitat. We look forward to sharing more Fin updates on the Zoo’s social media platforms in the future.
- Laura Lynn, primate department senior animal caretaker