Accordion Text: 
Koko's Radiant Portrait
Accordion Image: 
Accordion Text: 
Accordion Image: 
Accordion Text: 
Accordion Image: 
Accordion Text: 
Strategic Plan: CONSERVATION
Accordion Image: 
Accordion Text: 
Accordion Image: 
Research/Care Blog

Mission Ndume by Adrienne Mrsny

Ndume was in awe of his celestial birthday celebration

Date Added: 2008-11-04

Holiday celebrations at the Gorilla Foundation are a chance to give the gorillas a day out of the ordinary. With a bit of imagination and a few key enrichment pieces, the yard and bedrooms can be transformed into a different world. For Ndume’s birthday this year (Oct. 10, 2008) we went as far out as you can get, we went to space.

The large yard was transformed into a lunar surface. The ground became a silver terrain with large craters, created with silver tarps and large plastic buckets beneath. To the right , there was a large waterfall of cascading green ooze that bubbled in a lake (made of green tarps) below. Bubbles were made with green paper origami balloons, filled with popcorn and nuts (100% edible). The “lake” was complete with large floating branches and a huge mutant turtle.

Further down the yard was the “rocket ship” that would get our brave interplanetary gorilla explorers home. The ship’s facade was made from a very large corrugated tube with sturdy pieces of paper to form the fins and the nose cone. Ndume eventually discovered that the only way to get into the rocket was (unfortunately) by knocking it on its side, and pulling out all the toys and treats inside.

To complete this stellar scene there were “shooting stars” all around the yard. Since Koko has been known to eat paper, standard piñatas were out of the question. As a convenient alternative, cardboard, string and paint were used to make these star “piñatas”, which spilled out veggies and popcorn when shaken or opened.

Ambassador Koko was (as usual) the first to explore the new terrain, investigating each component carefully. Shortly after she was joined by her fellow explorer and birthday boy, Ndume. Together they explored the terrain, searching for food hidden amongst the strange lunar scene. Koko then watched from her perch, enjoying the warm sun on the crisp fall day, while Ndume turned over every last stone searching for food, then finally rested in the sun on the silver tarps.

  Mission Ndume Slideshow (click to play)
At lunchtime, “stars”, tiny “planets” and “rockets” awaited both gorillas in their rooms along with presents and a feast. The rockets were made from paper towel rolls, with a plug attached to a string, so the string could be pulled and the contents (tasty treats) would release. In their excitement, both gorillas ignored the apparatus and simply pulled each rocket down , pouring the contents out of the top. The “planets” were much easier to figure out. They were made from cardboard apple holders tied together, and when shaken expelled food.

Presents were another highlight for both gorillas. Ndume spent a lot of time looking through his packages and inspecting every detail, he was especially curious about the tissue paper, carrying it around on his head at one point.

Despite the above attractions the feast, as always, took center stage. The feast was full of “planets” (beets), “aliens” (artichoke hearts with frizze for arms, and porcupine meatballs), “flying saucers” (falafel discs), and a “rocket ship” (gorilla rice crispy squares) for dessert. Ndume burst into his primary room with a loud purr and spun in circles into his secondary room which contained the meal. He purred loudly throughout lunch. I brought drinks over to him at the window to enjoy with his meal.

Ndume was so overwhelmed with excitement that he tried to eat and drink at once, both hands full of food as he fumbled around to find the straw with his lips. Once he consumed all that was placed in front of him, he turned his attention back to his presents. Sitting in a pile of them with their wrappings all around, he tossed the presents into the air, letting them fall onto his head as he played.

Like any space explorer in a “waitless” environment, when the playing has subsided and all the treats have been found and eaten, it is time to take a nap. Climbing to the top of the green oozy waterfall, Ndume enjoyed the last of the warm sunlight on his birthday purring softly to himself in this alien — yet somehow familiar and comfortable — terrain.

Research/Care Blog

Making a New Friend ...by Tyler Robertson

Silverback Ndume can be both intimidating and charming.

Date Added: 2008-06-25

As a new caregiver at the Gorilla Foundation it’s hard to know what to expect from the first few months of training. You understand your job title (gorilla caregiver) and your supposed role, but there’s really no way of understanding what you’ll really be doing until your training begins.

For the first few weeks you have to tread lightly on the facility grounds making sure to keep your distance from the gorillas. Though you rarely see or hear the gorillas, they are constantly watching you. Half intrigued, half suspicious, Ndume kept me in my place by barking or chest slapping at me to show me who the real silverback of the property was. But as he became more familiar with my presence, and the fact that I would be sticking around for quite some time, he allowed me to move closer to his yard. It had taken me about a month, but I was finally able to spend some “quality” time with Ndume just yards away from his outdoor enclosure. This didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. For the first week or two he would gallop past me in a display and show his aggressive stance while I had to do my best to remain calm, not make eye contact, and to act as if there wasn’t a 425 lb. silverback gorilla (with the strength of five men mind you) trying to get my attention. Luckily this all passed quite quickly and within a couple of weeks he barely paid me any mind. I must admit, however, that all of the attention had felt kind of nice and now I was feeling more like an observer than a participant. But with Ndume's newfound comfort came the ability to feed him some of his daily meals, a truly special experience.

Much like myself, Koko and Ndume live for their meals. Every day they receive beautiful meals prepared by our caregivers and volunteers using fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and other special treats. I don’t eat nearly as well as Koko and Ndume so you can imagine the pleasure they derive from every meal. Feeding them their meals give you quite a bit of leverage because there's not much they will let stand between them and their food, not even a brand new caregiver. At first I stayed at a distance (but within eyesight) as another caregiver did the feeding. Ndume reacted well enough and everyday I would inch closer and closer. By the second week I was able to feed him some of his more special items through the mesh of a small window and by the third week I could deliver an entire meal myself. Now as if the rest of the training hadn't been exciting enough, the feeling of dropping a piece of fruit directly into a gorilla's mouth is utterly irreplaceable. Ndume's head takes up the entire window!

After I started feeding Ndume his meals regularly he stopped worrying so much about my presence. I could be within feet of him at any given moment and he would remain calm. This is not to say that he was completely comfortable with me for he would still occasionally give me impressive displays to remind me (as if I'd forgotten) that he's the one in charge. But now, more and more often, he would let out an affectionate 'purr,' almost hesitantly as though he didn't think I deserved one just yet. In fact the term 'purr' can be quite deceiving, because the first time I heard the word used in this context I thought it was a noise made out of anger, more like a low lion's growl. But when you hear a full-grown silverback gorilla 'purr' like a cat, you can't help but feel good about your work.

It had taken me a little over 3 months to become fully trained and even then Ndume hadn't completely opened up to me. He was comfortable with me performing all the necessary caregiver duties, but he still hadn't fully accepted me as a person.

Now, some 5 months after my first day, I sit in the yard with Ndume on a warm summer day and hear two claps; the sign that he wants to play 'chase' and he wants to play now. I get up and begin running the border of the yard. Ndume lets out another chest slap, only this time I know it's a playful gesture, quite different from the chestslaps I was receiving months prior. As he gallops across the yard and I run after him he looks back at me with a smile and I can’t help but think, 'I've made a new friend.'

Research/Care Blog

Research/Care Blog: Polite Gorilla Meets New Team Member

Koko signs POLITE

Date Added: 2010-02-16

As a newcomer to the Gorilla Foundation family, my interaction with the gorillas is limited. Ndume is still a bit wary of me. Although he tolerates my presence on the grounds, we haven't gotten very close to one another yet. Koko, on the other hand, has been quite friendly and we have enjoyed several nice 'porch visits.' My visits with her usually involve sitting quietly next to each other or me 'sleeping' next to her. She often likes her visitors to 'sleep,' which ensures that Koko can assess her now-quiet visitor at her leisure. Koko also likes to see people's dental work, so at her request I've shown her the inside of my mouth several times. All in all, from what Penny and the caregivers tell me, Koko seems to like me.

Given this, I was surprised at Koko's unexpected behavior during a recent visit. Upon my arrival, I sat down in my usual spot on the porch. Even before I was fully seated, she abruptly stood up and walked away. I remained where I was and waited to see what happened next. Penny asked Koko what was wrong. Penny very quickly figured out that Koko had wanted to have her snack before visiting with me. As soon as Koko knew that Penny figured it out (and that her snack was indeed coming soon), Koko sat down next to me and looked directly into my eyes. Then she signed that she is a 'polite' gorilla and asked me to 'sleep.' As I laid down and 'slept,' I was very touched by the fact that my new gorilla friend had felt the need to apologize to me for her previous behavior.

Research/Care Blog

Ndume's Birthday 'Camp' by Adrienne Mrsny

Date Added: 2007-10-28
When I design the gorillas' parties I look for things that are universally fun for humans and can be successfully translated to be just as fun for the gorillas. This year's birthday theme for Ndume (Oct. 10) came from an idea I had for a simple daily enrichment event. Upon thinking about it further I realized the only way to make this enrichment idea work for a birthday party was to make it really, really big. With our favorite outdoorsman Ndume's birthday coming up, it seemed like a perfect fit: we would give Ndume a day of camping for his birthday.
Ndume's indoor yard is converted to a “campsite”

The day of October 10th brought a cold morning and soggy ground from a storm that hit the night before. There was some concern that the gorillas would not want to go out, so we decorated the large yard sparsely, and focused our effort on the enclosed areas, like the small yard and 'gorilla bungalow' which were decorated in more detail. We transformed the yards and bungalow into a series of 'campsites,' giving Ndume the chance to look into each one. He found tents made of bed sheets, and sleeping bags containing forest-themed stuffed animals for him to play with.
One of many “tents” in the outdoor yard
In front of most tents there was a campfire, made from a red or orange origami paper balloon and filled with popcorn, while empty paper towel rolls filled with the morning's browse (raw veggies and fruit) lay beneath like firewood. Inside the tents there lay backpacks and water bottles, filled with more of his morning browse and special treats. A 'forest' was created in the small yard with large branch clippings woven into the mesh, giving the impression of shrubs. A 'tree' was also added – a cardboard roll from linoleum, with green painted cardboard slats inserted into the sides and food in paper balls hidden between each layer, to be revealed only when a slat was pulled. Finally, there was the 'lake' made of blue paper, with water-themed toy animals and again hidden treats to be found and consumed. Everyone was hoping for sunlight and a warmer day by the time the gorillas would be let into the yard.
“Picnic Blanket”

The sun was peeking though the clouds, but it was still a little cold for Koko to go out into the yard. Then it was time for Ndume to go out. He sat quietly next to me at the mesh for a moment, then turned his attention to the open chute and the small yard beyond. He gave out a purr and briskly walked right to the 'campfire,' devouring the popcorn inside. I left him pulling apart the various campsites and looking at the new enrichment items, while I helped clean and set up his room.

The smaller space of Koko and Ndume's bedrooms allowed us to more thoroughly transform the surroundings, creating more of a feeling of a forest. In Ndume's room, there was a cardboard 'tree' even larger than the one in the yard. This one had a picnic blanket with a stuffed bear and plastic fruits awaiting beneath. Hung from the light was another origami balloon filled with popcorn; this one was bright yellow and painted as a beehive. Scattered amongst the room were boxes of presents painted with forest animals on the sides. In his sleeping quarters, Ndume's entire bench was covered with freshly picked yellow and red maple leaves (his favorite treat this time of the year) giving the impression of a forest floor. His room truly looked like a campsite in the forest.

Once Ndume had finished searching the yard for treats he began pacing around the yard in a very excited manner. He eagerly watched from the mesh closest to us as we carried in the finishing touches for the camping motif. He was clapping and knocking loudly to get our attention to let him into his room. Ndume then sat on a shelf in the southwest corner of the yard that allowed him to watch us in the kitchen. He again began purring as we placed his meal.

“Honeycomb” “Bug” Food

Research/Care Blog

Ndume's Birthday Treats (and Tricks) by Adrienne Mrsny

Ndume prepares to open a pumpkin

Date Added: 2009-11-24

October is always a busy time at the Gorilla Foundation.  Ndume’s Birthday, on October 10th,  is the first major event of the month for the gorillas.  Planning for the unpredictable fall weather, we try to create activities for the gorillas that will work both in- and out-of doors.  This year however, we were hit by a terrific storm on the day of Ndume’s planned birthday celebration.  The threat of hurricane-level winds and torrential rains forced us to postpone the outdoor part of the celebration.  However, it didn’t stop us from celebrating our favorite silverback’s 28th birthday indoors.

Knowing that the weather would leave the yard too wet for a gorilla celebration, we had a wonderful day of extra indoor enrichment that began with cases of empty water bottles filled with treats and browse (raw vegetables and freshly-picked plants).  To keep things exciting inside while the weather was inclement outside, Ndume’s room was filled with fuzzy blankets, large stuffed animals, a huge plush pillow, and brightly colored plastic balls. 

When lunchtime came, both gorillas got a special feast.  The day’s regular foods were complemented by some special dishes: vegan heavenly hash, aspic with fruits, 75% dark chocolate alligators with nuts, sweet potato chips and delicious drinks of apricot nectar with sparkling water.

  Birthday Lunch  
  Lunch Tray for Ndume's Birthday
(Photo by Adrienne Mrsny, caregiver. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)

A few days later, when the weather was nicer and the ground had dried, we had a second day of celebration that included our original outdoor enrichment plans for Ndume’s birthday.   This year, we gorilla-ized a childhood classic — building blocks.  With a little work we transformed fruit boxes into brightly colored building blocks and assorted Lego®-like objects. We then transformed the yard into a children’s playroom, with doll houses and jungle gyms as well as the new “cardboard toys.”  The enrichment fit in so well that it took Ndume a while to figure out what was different about the yard.  Once he realized the boxes held special birthday treats, no box was left unturned.

  Birthday Lunch  
  Ndume explores the specially arranged play yard
(Photo by Adrienne Mrsny, caregive. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)

The ” building blocks” were simple to make.  Donated fruit boxes were cleaned up and painted with bright colors.  We filled the inside of each box with different types of materials: packing paper, sheets, pillowcases, bubble wrap and typing paper.  Hidden amongst these was the day’s browse: green beans, cucumbers and celery, plus some special treats: both roasted and dark chocolate-covered nuts.  Some of the synthetic building blocks had plastic cups placed on top to resemble the studs on top of Legos®.  These cups were filled with paper balls:  some with treats inside, and others empty.

  Blocks Blocks Box  
  Preparation of the 'Building Blocks'
  (Photos by Piper Dwight, caregiver. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)  

Once the birthday festivities were over, we turned our attention to another gorilla-treasured celebration: Halloween.  As in previous years,  we were blessed with donated pumpkins from Farmer John in Half Moon Bay, California.  This year he gave us two 200 pound pumpkins, and fifteen other smaller pumpkins for carving.  The gorillas were in for quite a treat.

  Birthday Lunch  
  Caregivers Adrienne Mrsny, Kim Schreiner and Caitlin O'Donoghue
pose with one of the 200 pounders

  (Photo by Kim Schreiner, caregiver. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)  

Last year we noticed that Ndume did not play with the pumpkins as expected.  So, at the time, we cut a lid off of one, and let him look inside, hoping that would spark his interest.  As this had little effect, we then hollowed out another pumpkin, and stuck green beans into its inner skin.  When Ndume discovered the pumpkin with the green beans,  he quickly ate all of the beans, then moved around the yard smashing pumpkins to look inside for more beans.  While Ndume found no other beans last year, he did successfully smash every remaining pumpkin in the yard—purring loudly as he completed his mission.

  Box   Ndume  
  Green beans “growing” from the inside of a pumpkin   Ndume reaching inside for the beans  
  Ndume   Ndume  
  Ndume reaches for another pumpkin . . .   . . . to inspect for inner green beans.  
  Ndume   Ndume  
  Ndume opens a pumpkin . . .   . . . only to find it devoid of beans  
  (Photos by Kim Schreiner, caregiver. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)  

This year,  Ndume immediately smashed the first pumpkin he came across. After looking inside and finding nothing, he lost interest.  For a number of days, he returned to the yard and smashed at least one pumpkin to look inside for beans.  Finally, Ndume witnessed Koko  modeling the “correct” way to approach a pumpkin, and realized there was something even more delicious inside — raw pumpkin seeds!

  Ndume   Koko  
  Ndume gets the hang of eating pumpkin seeds . . .   . . . by watching Koko  
  (Photos by Kim Schreiner, caregiver. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)  

As the days grow shorter and the air grows crisper in Northern California, the gorilla’s indoor and outdoor environments remain both fun and full of treats (and tricks).  Recently,  we caregivers decided to join in and “become” the enrichment by dressing up as characters from the Wizard of Oz.  Anything to please (and enrich) a captive gorilla audience.

  Caregivers Tyler Robertson, Kim Schreiner and Piper Dwight, aka,
the Wizard, Dorothy and the Strawman, respectively.
(Photo by Cameron Mrsny, volunteer. © 2009 the Gorilla Foundation)

Contact Us



The Gorilla Foundation / Koko.org
1733 Woodside Rd., Suite 330
Redwood City, CA, 94061
1-800-ME-GO-APE (634-6273)

User login

Why become a member?
Syndicate content

Our mission is to learn about gorillas by communicating with them, and apply our knowledge to advance great ape conservation, education, care and empathy.

facebook twitter instagram youtube 

Website design by 1185 Design and powered by TrevNet Media