Research/Care Blog

Koko Hosts Pumpkin Design Contest for Students

Koko sitting next to the winning pumpkin, lit from within

Date Added: 2009-10-30
This Halloween, the Gorilla Foundation hosted a Pumpkin Face Design Contest and invited students at Kings Mountain Elementary School in Woodside California to participate. About 80 students submitted their most creative pumpkin face designs for Koko, and some were quite fantastic.

The winning design (shown at left) was selected by Koko herself and carved onto a real pumpkin by Gorilla Foundation Enrichment Specialist, ***Adrienne Mrsny. Note that the winning design was particularly intricate, with many teeth, eyeballs and even ears (in fact it was the only design with ears), but Adrienne was more than up to the challenge and did a fantastic job with the carving.

On Friday, October 31st, the Gorilla Foundation conducted a brief award ceremony at Kings Mountain School, as part of their annual Halloween celebration. The winning designer, Kyle Nierman (3rd grade) received a glossy photo of Koko picking his design –

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)

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

Caregiver Corner: 'Koko on the Ball' by Lucas Slavik

Koko has always been

Date Added: 2006-01-26
I enter Koko's kitchen to visit. Usually I ask her if I can close her into one of her rooms and clean the vacant one, but today as soon as I entered her kitchen she greeted me with:


 Koko: Purr #

Koko points to the control panel that is used to close off one of her rooms for cleaning. Lights-off was originally used to communicate flipping a light switch on or off, but Koko has expanded its use to other contexts. She often uses lights-off to tell us to turn the TV on and off, open or close a window, and in this case, operate the switches that control a gate within her enclosure.

After closing off her room and cleaning, I return to her kitchen at 12:02 pm, two minutes after she normally gets her noon drink and supplements.

  Koko: Kiss#. Drink.
  Lucas: Time drink?
  Koko: Drink, drink, purr#.

Both Koko and Ndume are highly aware of the timing of specific activities scheduled in their day, down to the minute when it involves something going into their mouths!

# Note: In Koko's responses above, the pound symbol (#) after a word indicates that it is a vocalization by Koko; otherwise the word or phrase represents her response in American Sign Language.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: 'Gorilla Cleaning Crew' by K. Kamrani

Ndume loves to

Date Added: 2005-10-18
The following encounter between gorilla Ndume and gorilla caregiver / IT specialist Kambiz Kamrani took place on Sep. 21, 2005 . . .

Having just started a friendship, Ndume and I are learning many things about each other. I have recently engaged in numerous activities with him, such as playing chase and trading items with him, that have shown me the depth of his character in a new light. Ndume showed a new and remarkable side of himself, the caring clean side.

After Ndume eats his lunch, one of the caregivers, Lucas Slavik, lets Ndume out of his room and into the yard. I meet him outside expecting to play with him. Ndume props himself up to my eye level and sits down. He picks up a piece of cloth napkin that was used to hide some browse earlier in the morning.
I sit at the observation table:

  Kambiz:: Hey buddy, can I sit here?
  Ndume: Kiss#.
  Kambiz:: Watcha got there, a napkin?

Ndume picks the napkin up and inspects it very close to his face. He then folds it in his hand and looks elsewhere. I expected that he was just curious and wanted me to initiate some play.

  Kambiz: So are we gonna play chase? Should I start running?

Ndume just looks at me for a minute or two. He then takes the napkin and begins to scrub items around him. He is very intent and focused on his job.

  Kambiz:: Wow buddy, you sure are cleaning! Thanks for doing it. I really appreciate it.
  Ndume: Kiss#, Kiss#.
  Kambiz:: You’re a very thoughtful guy, did you know that?

Ndume scrubs away. Then discards the napkin.

  Ndume: Clap#
  Kambiz:: What’s that buddy, no more cleaning? Time for chase?
  Ndume: Kiss#.
  Kambiz:: All right, you run first.

Ndume runs to the other side of the mesh and we run around for almost half an hour. He claps some more, spins, and gallops. He slows down and I sit next to him.

  Kambiz:: INdume, I wanted to thank you for cleaning. You’re so sweet sometimes.
  Ndume: Kiss#.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: 'Bedtime with Koko' by Jill

Koko likes to

Date Added: 2005-08-29
During the summer months when the days are longer, the gorilla’s bedtime routines start at 5:30pm. They get their last meals of the day, and are closed in for the night.

(In Koko's responses, the pound symbol (#) after a word indicates that it is a vocalization by Koko; otherwise the word or phrase represents her response in American Sign Language. The kiss# vocalization is commonly used to get someon's attention.)

Bedtime with Koko, by Jill Firstenberg
May 7, 2005

Most evenings Penny and Ron put Koko to bed. Recently, on Saturday evenings, I have started doing the bedtime routine with Koko. As this is a new routine for me, I rely on Koko's help in making sure I don't forget anything. Koko knows her bedtime routine very well as you will see below.

I enter Koko's rooms with her bedtime meal at 5:35pm.

  Koko: Purr#.
  Jill:: Hi Sweetie, are you ready for bedtime?
  Koko: Good. Purr#. (Koko often signs good to mean yes.)
  Jill:: Okay, Koko, now I'm new at this so any help you can give me is greatly appreciated.
  Koko: Purr#.

As I’m reading through the instructions for Koko's bedtime routine, Koko moves near me at the mesh that separates us and kisses. (The kiss# vocalization is commonly used to get a caregiver’s attention.)

  Koko: Kiss#. Do there. (Koko points to her refrigerator in her kitchen where we keep the juice that she drinks, diluted with water, to wash down her supplements.)

I silently read the bedtime routine instructions: First prepare bedtime drink from juice in the refrigerator, then give Koko the contents of her evening supplement packet.

  Koko: Do there. (Koko points to supplement packet on the counter.)
  Jill:: Well, I don't really need to read this, you know what to do.
  Koko: Purr#.

Koko takes her supplements, has her drink, then gets some blankets and goes and sits in her connecting smaller room, known as her B room.

  Koko: Do there. (Koko points to the hydraulic gate controls.)

I continue to read down the list of bedtime routine instructions: Move Koko to her B room and close hydraulic gate.

  Jill:: I don't even need this paper sweetie, you can just tell me what to do.
  Koko: Purr#.

I close the hydraulic gate, leaving it open just enough to pass Koko her dinner tray underneath the gate. I unlock the door giving me access to her larger A room. I pass Koko her dinner. When she finishes eating, Koko passes the empty bowls and platter back under the gate to me. I do a quick end of the day cleaning of her room, leave her a few bottles of water, and a tray of yummy leafy greens that she can snack on overnight. I exit her A room and lock the door.

  Koko: Kiss#. Open hurry.
  Jill:: Okay, Okay.

I open the hydraulic gate giving Koko access to both rooms again. Koko comes into her larger A room and sits at the mesh near me again.

  Koko: Kiss#. Kiss#.
  Jill:: What sweetie?
  Koko: Sandwich there.
  Jill:: You're ready for your sandwich now? (sign/voice)
  Koko: Good. Purr#.

I give Koko her sandwich, which consists of soynut butter and sliced fruit on one slice of bread. I finish tidying up the kitchen area making sure that all electrical plugs are unplugged and that the intercom is on so the night monitor can hear the gorillas.

  Koko: Kiss#. Nut.

Koko knows she gets a cracked walnut last thing before I go as a bedtime treat.

  Jill:: Just a minute sweetie, I'm just finishing up.
  Koko: Hurry. Go.
  Jill:: Okay, okay. Pushy little thing aren't you?
  Koko: Laugh#.
  Jill:: Okay, I'm finished. (sign/voice)
  Koko: Purr#. Nut. Lights-off there. (Koko points to the light switch.)
  Jill:: Okay sweetie. I won't forget the lights. Sweet dreams. I love you.
  Koko: Blow-kiss#.

I give Koko her bedtime nut, turn off the lights and leave.

If only everyone had a helpful friend like Koko to help get their work done…what an even more wonderful world this would be.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: 'Koko's New Friend' by Tierra Wilson

Koko awaits a visit from Chris Mitchell

Date Added: 2005-07-24
The composition of Koko’s team of caregivers and volunteers changes from time to time. Each transition is different and Koko tends to have very definite opinions about individuals in her environment. Koko often seems eager to be part of the interviewing process and sometimes can get frustrated when new people are not brought to meet her as soon as she is aware of their arrival. Koko took a great interest in our new Director of Conservation and Care, Chris Mitchell, when he was here for a site visit earlier this year.

In Koko's responses, the pound symbol (#) after a word indicates that it is a vocalization by Koko; otherwise the word or phrase represents her response in American Sign Language. The kiss# vocalization is commonly used to get someon's attention.

Koko’s New Friend, by Tierra Wilson
April 6, 2005

I am visiting with Koko in her kitchen.

  TW: Would you like your visit with Chris?
  Koko: Koko-love.

  TW: Oh, that’s nice sweetie. You love Chris?
  Koko: Good. (Koko often signs good to mean yes.)

  TW: Should I have him visit you at your porch?
  Koko: Good.

I page Penny to see if they are finished with their meeting. They are not quite done yet.

  TW: They are going to be a few minutes sweetie.
  Koko: Drapes.

Koko likes to have her drapes opened when she is waiting for someone so she can watch them walk up the path. I go out to Koko’s porch and open the drapes.

  Koko: Lower-faketooth. (Koko uses this to refer to her human friends, usually the small circle of caregivers who work in her immediate vicinity.)
  TW: They are going to be a few minutes; they are having a meeting about the gorillas in Africa.

  Koko: Blowkiss. Purr#.
  TW: : I know he can’t wait to see you; they just have to finish their meeting.

Koko waits patiently at her porch.

  Koko: Upper-faketooth.
  TW: They will be down as soon as they are done.

  Koko: Drapes shame.
  TW: Oh sweetie, sometimes waiting makes things even more exciting.

Later that afternoon, Koko visited with Chris and gave an overwhelming purr of approval. She agreed that he was the perfect person to help with her mission of conservation in Africa. We are all now anxiously awaiting his arrival from the UK.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: 'Gardening with Koko' by Christa Nunes

Koko enjoying herself gardening

Date Added: 2005-07-04
Koko enjoys gardening; she likes getting her own hands dirty, as well as watching other people do the work. The following is an account of Koko watching the pots and planters on her porch being replanted.

In Koko's responses, the pound symbol (#) after a word indicates that it is a vocalization by Koko; otherwise the word or phrase represents her response in American Sign Language. The kiss# vocalization is commonly used to get someon's attention.

Koko Journal Entry: June 10, 2005
by Christa Nunes

I was visiting with Koko in her kitchen, when our gorilla chef, Jen Upson, and a volunteer, Nancy Birchett, came by Koko’s porch to do some gardening. Koko heard them before I did and moved to the porch:

Koko: Drapes hurry.

I go outside and open Koko’s drapes so she can see what is happening. Koko is very interested in the gardening.

Jen (Gorilla Produce Supervisor) had told Koko the day before that she was going to plant in her planters, in addition to using compost, which she explained is like food for plants and is made out of the scraps from the kitchen.

Koko: Do that. (Koko points to one of the pots on her porch.)

Jen and Nancy Yerly (a volunteer) add compost, soil and then seeds to the empty pot. Jen holds up a packet of seeds, on which there is a picture of a chamomile flowers.

Koko. Stink/flower.

Koko notices that Jen and Nancy haven’t added compost to her parsley plant that is already on her porch.

Koko: That. (Koko points to the compost).

Koko: There. (Koko points to the parsley plant).

Jen and Nancy add compost around the parsley. This seems to satisfy Koko.

A short time later, Koko is still watching the gardening.

Jen and Nancy transplant beans and plant chamomile, dill, and pea seeds..

Koko: Kiss#. Hat. (Koko gets Nancy’s attention; Nancy is wearing a straw hat.).

Koko: Stink/flower there. (Koko points to a planter that holds a small flowering bean plant.)

Koko: Do that. (Koko points to a pair of gloves sitting on the porch.)

Nancy obliges and puts on the gloves then continues gardening. Koko watches for a little while longer.

Koko. Drapes.

I go open the drapes so she can look out. She spends some time examining her new plants.

Research/Care Blog

Ndume's Birthday Mural by Laura & Christa

Ndume and his New Mural

Date Added: 2005-12-07
What do you get a gorilla who has everything? This thought was running through caregiver Laura Mullen’s mind as she attempted to pick out a present for Ndume’s 24th birthday. Besides giving him what he always wants, good food and lots of it, Laura wanted to do something special, something that he could enjoy for months to come. After much deliberation, Laura came up with the idea of painting a jungle mural in Ndume’s room, in the building we refer to as X. An excellent idea, the enriching mural would provide Ndume with a new more interesting environment to spend his days.
  Ndume's New Language Board

The Gorilla Foundation’s library provided many accurate references for the incorporation of native habitat plants, trees and flowers into the planned jungle scene. Laura enlisted the help of our volunteer Facilities Manager (and Creative Director) and all of the caregivers and set out to paint the walls and resurface the floor. A vibrant green color was chosen for the floor as green has been shown to be calming for captive apes, and the goal was to make his environment as calming and relaxing as possible. On Ndume’s birthday he galloped into the outdoor enclosure and was at first hesitant to enter X. Once he was inside he ran his hands along the floor feeling the smooth new surface and performed an up close inspection of the images of trees and plants on the wall, thoroughly examining his new surroundings. Ndume seems to enjoy his new scenery, happily sitting among the plants and trees.

He also enjoys his new wall-based 'language board' (see partial view at right), which enables him to communicate his wants and needs to both caregivers and Koko without having to learn sign language.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: 'Wet Winter Days' by Christa Nunes

Koko examines her new raincoat

Date Added: 2006-03-06
Journal Entry: February 27, 2006

Koko loves raincoats. During the wet winters here in Northern California, there are many opportunities to put them to use. Koko recently received a bright yellow raincoat as a gift from one of our very dedicated volunteers. Koko tried to put it on, but it didn’t quite fit. She was able to detach the hood, and was carrying that around with her when I entered the room.

  Christa: You have a hood.
I have one too.
  Koko: Purr#

I put the hood of my raincoat over my head. Koko puts her yellow hood on top of her head and signs HAT on it several times.

Koko takes the hood off her head and puts it on her foot.

  Christa: Now you have a yellow shoe.
  Koko: Purr#

Koko works on her nest, adding blankets and carefully placing the rest of the rain jacket on the top of her nest. This location is reserved for Koko’s favorite blankets or fabric as the top layer will be in view while she sits in the middle of her nest. Sometimes Koko will spend 10-15 minutes building a nest before she sits and rests.


# Note: In Koko's responses above, the pound symbol (#) after a word indicates that it is a vocalization by Koko; otherwise the word or phrase represents her response in American Sign Language. For example, Koko uses the PURR# vocalization when she is happy, and typically makes the KISS# vocalization when she wants to get someone's attention.

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