Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: Three Perspectives

Gorilla caregivers Serena, Christa and Lucas (top)

Date Added: 2005-03-27
One of the goals of the research we do at the Gorilla Foundation is to better understand the intellectual, emotional and social development of the gorilla. To this end, we keep extensive daily records of all behavioral observations.

Ndume and Koko have distinct personalities and seem to experience the full range of moods common to humans.

Below are three separate accounts of interactions with the gorillas, two with Koko and one with Ndume, that give you a glimpse into the gorilla’s daily lives.
(Koko's signs are shown in red; her vocalizations are italicized.)


Koko watching a video on her TV..
Communicating with Koko, by Serena Rose Leibrand
September 14, 2003,

Koko and I are hanging out together in her indoor facility. As is typical, Koko leads the day’s activities and communicates to her friends about her preferences. Here is an example of one such interaction in which relaying information and understanding each other had to be negotiated.

Koko: Lights off there. (Koko points to something on the counter)
SR: This? (Holds up a doll that is on the counter)
Serena Rose hands her the doll, but Koko drops it.
Koko: There. (Again, Koko points to something on the counter)
SR: Sorry, I don't understand what you want.
Koko: Toilet.
SR: I know, me toilet.
Koko: Good. (Koko often signs 'good' to mean 'yes')
SR: Use sign. Name what you want.
Koko: Nice movie do there. (Points to counter where her movies were previously kept)
SR: Ah! They're all up on the new shelf. Ok, something nice. (Voice only).
Koko and I pick out a movie and put it on.
Koko: Purr. (Purring is a low-pitched vocalization that is a sign of contentment in gorillas.)

In the end Koko clearly expressed what she wanted, making it easy to oblige.

Serena Rose Leibrand is a Research Assistant/Gorilla Caregiver for the Gorilla Foundation. She began her life-long dream to work with The Gorilla Foundation at the turn of the millennium. Born and raised only a couple of miles from Stanford where Project Koko began, she followed the foundation's progress for years and earned a BA in psychology from UCSC in preparation for a career in interspecies communication. Before beginning her work with the gorillas, Serena Rose helped with training, husbandry and running acoustic and cognition experiments for the pinnipeds at Long Maine Lab in Santa Cruz. She has also spent years teaching and caring for her exceptionally intelligent and loving dog-daughter, Rosebud.


Koko plays with her toy alligator..
Communicating with Koko, by Christa Nunes, Ph.D.
March 2, 2005:

Koko can be very playful at times. Here is an interaction involving pretend play and Koko’s favorite toys.
I enter Koko’s kitchen.

Koko: Purr. (Purring is a low-pitched vocalization that is a sign of contentment in gorillas.)
CN: Where’s Koko?
Koko: Purr.
CN: There she is!
Koko has her favorite doll, called water baby, and a plastic alligator. She is making the alligator bite Water Baby on the face, stomach and legs.
CN: Wow, alligator is getting the baby!
Koko: Purr.
Koko holds Water Baby and the alligator up to her lips and kisses both at the same time.
CN: A triple kiss! Wow!
Koko: Purr.

I thought it was amazing to see a big gorilla kissing a little doll and a plastic alligator, but with Koko it is a normal occurrence. Gorillas are naturally loving, compassionate, and intelligent beings.

Dr. Christa Nunes is a Research Associate/Gorilla Caregiver for the Gorilla Foundation. She came to the Gorilla foundation in 2004 with a Bachelors degree from UCLA, a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado (where she led several zero gravity experiments that flew on the Space Shuttle) and a PhD. in Bioengineering from UCSF and UC Berkeley, After her Ph.D., Christa embarked on a 2 year journey around the world, where she had the opportunity to visit the SUSA gorilla family on the densely forested Karisimbi Volcano in northern Rwanda. That experience proved to be life altering, as Christa realized that she wanted to dedicate herself to the conservation of these incredible beings — which she now can do.


Ndume
Communicating with Ndume, by Lucas Slavik
February 20, 2005:

One of Ndume’s ways of getting an extra treat is to “trade” an object in his enclosure for something more desirable like a nut or piece of fruit. In this case, Ndume wanted to trade a walnut for a peanut (Ndume isn’t very fond of walnuts).

So we made a trade. “Okay, Ndume, good trade,” as I took the walnut from him and handed him a peanut. Ndume wasn’t finished trading. He wanted to trade a large cardboard box he had for another peanut. Ndume held up the large box and tried to push it through the mesh of his enclosure. Since the mesh is only a few inches wide the box wouldn’t fit. “Looks like it’s a bit too big buddy.” Ndume paused, looked at the mesh, looked at me, and then at the box. He then proceeded to tear up the box into little pieces and pass them through the mesh.

“Good trade, Ndume.”

Ndume was not formally taught sign language, but does communicate using natural gorilla gestures and signs he’s picked up from watching Koko, Michael and the caregivers. Apart from making me laugh, Ndume often astounds me with new behavior and demonstrations of a very sharp intelligence.

Lucas Slavik is the Gorilla Caregiver Manager for the Gorilla Foundation. . Lucas spent the majority of his life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and central coast of California appreciating and exploring the natural environment around him. He joins the Gorilla Foundation in an effort to preserve this world and bring about awareness of its rapid destruction. After completing his undergraduate work at The University of California, Santa Barbara, Lucas worked as a research aid doing environmental surveys on endangered frogs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shortly after, he began his primate career supervising a research facility that housed roughly 60 squirrel monkeys. Lucas now resides in South San Francisco with his fiancé and hopes to start a family in parallel with Koko and Ndume at TGF's new gorilla preserve.


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