Research/Care Blog

Party Animals by Adrienne Mrsny

Ndume enjoys his birthday feast

Date Added: 2006-12-15
Caregiver's Corner:

In my house, companion animals were always treated as part of the family. When being reprimanded, they were referred to with our surname. “Toby Dog Mrsny, get over here!” was a common response when we would find our Australian Shepard mix in a pile of the half chewed contents from our recycling bin. When Christmas came around, each animal had a stocking hung right next to our own. Their birthdays, though sometimes arbitrarily designated, were always celebrated. Both birthdays and holidays brought them presents and an extra treat, even if it was only an extra dash of fish food or a new chew bone.

That’s why it didn’t seem like an odd request when Christa asked me to put together Ndume’s Birthday Party. Our companion animals had always been thought of as sentient beings, so a party for the gorillas (though much more intelligent and quite a bit larger than our goldfish, rats, rabbits and dogs) did not seem like much of a stretch. It was only once she started describing what would need to be done, that I realized what was different. This wasn’t a special day for a companion animal; it was a large party for a child. All the amusements had to be fun and stimulating, the food nutritious, and each element had to be industrious and gorilla-proof. Decorations–they must to be non-toxic because Koko likes to eat tape and glue. Party games-–enrichment tools that would keep both gorillas happy and entertained all day. Presents–sent from friends of the gorillas would need to be wrapped and made gorilla-safe. Lastly food–a menu that would be fun and new, while keeping in mind the gorilla’s strict dietary restrictions. I had quite a bit of work ahead of me. This was to be the first party I would throw for the pair.

I approached the party as if I was planning one for a young boy. I wanted balloons, streamers, fun games and a big cake with candles. Unfortunately, most things turned out not to be gorilla safe, so I had to make adjustments. Since latex balloons were out, I made origami balloons out of butcher paper. We put these balloons around the yard and in the rooms, filled with popcorn, fruit and nuts. Streamers would certainly be fun new decorations for the rooms. So as a non-toxic, gorilla-safe, alternative we made paper chains from newspaper. The daily browse was hung from the sides of the enclosure in pillowcases. This new amusement was especially fun for Koko, who seemed to enjoy climbing along the top of the enclosure to get them. Finally, a fun attraction for Koko and Ndume was made by filing children’s wading pools with water and floating in them water bottles full of tasty treats. Koko was especially interested in this hunt, and Penny had a hard time getting her to come to her meal station in the yard for her breakfast.

The biggest challenge by far was the birthday menu. The problem was not with the delectable southwestern offerings we had planned, but with the special diet of the guests of honor. Both gorillas have dietary restrictions and, on top of that, Koko cannot eat many things Ndume can. For instance, both gorillas got sloppy Joes. Using tempeh as a substitute for meat, Ndume got the traditional mix of tomatoes and other ingredients while Koko’s were made with cannellini beans and mustard. Another restriction had to do with the cake, as neither gorilla can eat foods containing gluten, dairy products, or large amounts of sugar. A traditional cake was out of the question, so our Gorilla Food Prep Manager, Colleen Champion, took on this task and made amazing gluten-free and dairy-free chocolate cakes made with raspberry icing. The cakes were highlighted by wonderful gelatin mold platters created by our Volunteer Food Prep Coordinator, Susan Lutter. It was only on the morning of Ndume’s birthday that I saw how all the weeks of birthday planning were coming together. The southwest theme we chose was complete-–from the cornbread and black bean soup, down to the homemade poppy seed chips and dip. However no birthday would be complete without the special extra-dark chocolate alligators Penny made. The meals were over-flowing with novel foods and it was finally time to start the feast.

All the hard work I had put into planning and preparing for this day was forgotten the second I let Ndume into his room for lunch. Ndume ran eagerly from pile of presents to pile of presents, looking briefly, sniffing the wrapping, then feeling each of the new blankets on the floor in a confused state of that of a kid in a candy store. Ndume quickly shook his look of overwhelmed glee when he spotted the mound of food waiting for him at the far end of the room–now he appeared perfectly focused. Like a child at any birthday party, Ndume went straight for the dessert. He took the cake in what looked like a single bite. I got to sneak into the hallway and take photos of him as he ate. He loudly purred his contentment as I sat in awe watching him eat.

Planning Ndume’s birthday was the hardest and most rewarding challenge that I have faced as a caregiver at the Gorilla Foundation. Though many of the products of our long labors were extraordinarily short-lived, I think the party provided the gorillas with a day that was exceptionally fun and stimulating–a true success. I am now very excited to see what we will do for the gorillas’ next holiday celebration.


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