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    All photos courtesy of the Louisville Zoo

    Update 11/8/2016:
    Read more about Kindi's adoption in this update from the November issue of 
    Louisville Magazine.

    Update 10/22/16:
    This week, the Louisville Zoo announced that a 32-year-old gorilla named Kweli has adopted 
    Kindi, an orphaned infant gorilla that was born six months ago. Finding a gorilla surrogate is quite a process, one that demands zookeepers stand in as gorilla mom until an adult gorilla shows interest in the baby. This adoption is good news for Kindi. But it’s not the ending any of the zookeepers were expecting.


    Kindi is a hit. Crowds teeter on tiptoes and slither between wagons and strollers to catch a glimpse. When she’s on exhibit at the Louisville Zoo, in one of the rooms showcasing gorillas behind soundproof, gorilla-proof glass, the climate changes. Four fans spinning from the vaulted ceiling can’t keep up. Air grows starchy, a few degrees hotter, perhaps from all the exclamations — “She’s so cute!” “Look at her!” “Jayden, turn around and smile!” Pressed noses and sticky hands leave a fickle, evolving constellation of steam and smudges on the window separating Kindi from the frantic bustle of passing, sweaty humans. 

    Her round brown eyes startle, each one as bright and hopeful as a pot of gold. Underneath a tuft of black fuzz, Kindi’s wrinkled brow looks both brand new and geriatric. By mid-summer, her gangly limbs can pull her body onto a black produce crate, her long toes and fingers curling and uncurling as she grips. Once on top of the crate, she will wobble and fall backwards — “Awwwwww!” She loves to flip upside down, just as her mother Mia Moja did. If you’re lucky, you might witness a smile and a laugh, a breathy — ah, ah, ah — only the keepers sitting with her can hear.

    Inevitably, every few minutes someone asks. Where’s the mother? Kindi doesn’t live with the zoo’s other gorillas. She’s cuddling and playing with keepers, a rotating team of eight women and one man who are the stand-in moms, actor moms, costumed in a black fur vest on loan from the Cincinnati Zoo. “The mom” — (pause) — “died,” the zoo docents in yellow shirts — here specifically to educate and control Kindi crowds — will begin. Died. That word always comes in a solemn, low octave.

    Kindi was born on March 14, 2016. Mia Moja would’ve turned 27 four days later. But the day after delivering Kindi through an emergency C-section, she unexpectedly passed away. “Does the daddy take care of it?” some kids will ask. No, female gorillas raise the babies. “So the keepers just sit there with her?” 

    Keepers are temporarily hand-raising Kindi, doing their best to imitate a gorilla mom, which means somebody is with her 24 hours a day. When a sound frightens her and she stiffens, burying her face into the fur vest, keepers offer a low, rumbling purr — mmmmm — part soft growl, part idle car to reassure her, just like a gorilla mom. “We are just a different kind of gorilla,” one of the keepers likes to say. By five months, the hope is, a female gorilla will be drawn to Kindi and want to raise her as her own.

    It sounds simple. Zoos successfully place orphaned gorillas with surrogates all the time. Staff at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio have done it so well so often they’ve assembled a 150-page manual on surrogacy and hand-rearing, which Kindi’s keepers have read. But even intelligent primates, animals that share 98 percent of our human DNA, don’t always fulfill expectations. What if a female gorilla doesn’t want her? What if gorillas act aggressively towards her? Jill Katka, assistant curator of Gorilla Forest at the Louisville Zoo, has one goal — keep Kindi here. “But if none of our gorillas want to be a surrogate, we have to send her someplace else,” Katka explains, the thought bringing tears to her clear blue eyes. 

    Humans love Kindi. Lactating mothers have offered the zoo their breast milk. Pre-schoolers doodle Kindi drawings and beg docents to let them pet her. One of Kindi’s keepers had a picture of the infant gorilla tattooed on the inside of her left wrist. Katka’s phone totals 861 Kindi photos by mid-summer — Kindi sucking on a spindly finger shortly after birth; drowsy Kindi drinking her first bottle, right eye shut, left one barely managing; Kindi sticking the tip of her pink tongue out. But humans cannot give Kindi all that she needs.

    Kindi is born at 12:35 on the afternoon of March 14. Two hours later, Jill Katka pulls on white latex gloves and a blue surgical mask. She’s the first keeper to hold her. Katka wraps the bony little thing in a pink blanket. The baby, asleep with legs scrunched to her torso, could fit in Katka’s hand and looks puny in the crook of her arm. Kindi’s premature by a few weeks, but at 14 inches long and 3 pounds, 9 ounces she’s still about average. Pinkish skin sags along her elbows, stretches over her belly and creates bald patches behind her ears and down her soft shoulders.

    Holding this baby, Katka is made for this. As a four-year-old, she’d groom herself like the family cat. One of her earliest memories from her childhood in Wisconsin is finding a nest of bunnies and convincing herself their mother had abandoned them. She can still hear her father yelling upon discovering the creatures in her closet: “Put those bunnies back!” The 44-year-old, whose long, light-brown hair lives in a ponytail, has a master’s in psychology and spent years studying animal behavior. No mystery to the passion of Jill Katka.

    Before Kindi, Katka spent her days doing what she’d always wanted to do — training animals, teaching them captivity’s routines, like how to receive shots and open wide for dental exams. Gorillas know that when they hear the word “shift,” it’s time to crawl through chutes and tunnels to a different indoor or outdoor area of Gorilla Forest. Katka had even conditioned Mia Moja to tolerate the hiss and tug of a breast pump in case her milk needed to be extracted upon Kindi’s arrival.

    As Katka sits with the groggy infant, she decides it’s time for a test. She inserts her gloved index fingers into the baby’s hands and lifts. The infant’s long, thin arms hold strong as the keeper raises her up. Kindi’s tiny rib cage — claw-like bones tinier than pinky fingers — presses out. Katka’s pleased. Kindi’s even stronger than she would’ve imagined. Infant gorillas must grip well. They cling to their mother’s fur for much of their young life. (Katka has accidentally lifted floppy-necked, floppy-limbed human infants this way. “The moms are like: Whoa, whoa!”) Katka feeds Kindi a small bottle of Similac formula designed for preemies. The infant dribbles a bit as she sucks, her grape-sized cheeks popping in and out. At this point, Mia’s fine, recovering from her C-section. (In the wild, a birthing complication like this would have killed mother and child.) Once alert, mother and child will be reunited, Katka thinks.

    On March 15 at 6:30 in the morning, Alexis Williamson arrives at the zoo. She takes the baby now wrapped in an animal-print blanket from Katka. The 19-year zoo veteran with short brown hair and a tattoo of the zoo’s pygmy hippos on her right wrist sits in a rolling office chair and places another blanket — this one of black fur — over Kindi. The baby’s temperature has been dipping a few degrees below the desired 98.6. A space heater hums nearby.

    Kindi’s arrival is cause for celebration at the zoo. Western lowland gorillas — the only species of gorillas in captivity — are critically endangered. It’s estimated that the gorilla population in the wild has declined by more than 60 percent over the last 20 to 25 years. About 100,000 remain in the forests and swamps of Central Africa, their lives threatened by the commercial hunting of primates for food and souvenirs, as well as the industrialization of native habitats. The Louisville Zoo is one of 51 zoos in North America that care for about 350 captive gorillas.

    An infant brings a whole new dynamic to Gorilla Forest, a $15-million, four-acre space that opened in 2002. There’s the part the public sees: two lush yards and three glass-encased day rooms with tree trunks and poles for climbing and jungle scenery airbrushed on walls. Then there’s the behind-the-scenes space that includes seven stalls with high ceilings, beige walls and skylights. This is where zookeepers log long hours caring for the zoo’s 10 gorillas, learning their quirks, like that a 46-year-old female named Demba loves baby talk.

    Mia’s pregnancy was part of a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its Gorilla Species Survival Plan. As the dominant female in her troop, Mia was close to Mshindi, the 350-pound male known as a silverback for the gray hair that slopes down males’ backs and thighs when fully mature. Highly social animals, gorillas generally live in family troops that can reach up to 20 in the wild. Mia’s group included the dominant male, Mshindi, and two other 20-something females named Paki and Kwali. Mia stopped taking the pill and fingers were crossed. (It’s true, gorillas are on the pill. To help manage populations and ensure health, breeding is tightly controlled.) She had been a wonderfully attentive mother with two previous children, the last of whom was born in 2010. An over-the-counter urine test confirmed she was pregnant. For eight months, all went smoothly.

    Mia Mojo

    Then, later on March 15, the day after delivery, texts start circulating among zoo staff. Another keeper named Michelle Wise visits Williamson. Mia’s not well. The zoo’s veterinarian, Dr. Zoli Gyimesi, finds Mia barely breathing. He intubates her. Chest compressions begin. They use a manual resuscitator to deliver breaths. A shot of epinephrine is administered. For 20 or so minutes they try to revive her.

    The next time Williamson hears an update it’s from the hallway. Wise is crying on the other side of the hospital room’s white wall. When Williamson’s phone pings just after 8, she knows: Mia’s gone. She looks down at the infant who is not yet named and whispers, over and over she whispers, “You have to be OK to make this OK. You have to survive to make this OK.”


    In the weeks that follow, Mia’s death will be blamed on birth complications. The morning of March 14, a trail of blood was discovered in one of the zoo’s exhibit spaces known as Day Room One. The zoo’s bachelor group of gorillas — four rowdy males — were in a nearby room banging around, a sign of distress. They knew something wasn’t right. Mia was lying on a shelf some 12 feet in the air on her side. Keepers quickly discovered the blood was hers. They loaded her in a white transport van and drove her up the steep hill at the zoo, past the elephants and zebras, to the on-site hospital.

    Later, doctors learned Mia suffered from partial placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta covers some of the cervix, the infant’s way out. Bleeding erupted when the placenta peeled away from the uterus. In humans, this sort of condition could be detected by ultrasound. But the ultrasounds Mia received lasted just a few minutes. She didn’t like the gel. Blueberries and yogurt couldn’t persuade her to stay pressed against the mesh while an ultrasonographer poked at her belly.

    The bleeding, though, that’s not what killed her. A necropsy showed a blood clot obstructed her bowels. (Gorilla anatomy so resembles that of humans, the zoo recruited Jefferson County Coroner Barbara Weakley-Jones to assist with the necropsy.) Mother nature designs pregnant mammals to ramp up their clotting abilities so they don’t bleed out upon delivery. That lifesaving gift also heightens the chance of a fatal clot.

    Katka knew Mia’s troop would want to mourn. So before Mia’s cadaver was shipped to the University of Kentucky for scientific research by a paleoanthropologist, Paki, Mshindi and Kwali gathered by the body. Paki, Mia’s best buddy, reached for Mia’s face, charcoal-colored fingers touching her eyes and cheeks.


    Katka calls the Columbus Zoo. If she and her keepers must mother this infant until a gorilla can take over — a first for the Louisville Zoo — she wants to learn from the best, folks who’ve successfully matched 15-plus orphaned gorillas with surrogates. (Katka does have some experience in raising young primates. A few years ago, she helped care for a trio of orphaned siamangs.)

    Three gorillas have been born at the Louisville Zoo. One was only here on loan in 2003 and eventually returned with his family to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. In 2010, Mia gave birth to Misha. A few weeks after her birth, while on exhibit, Mshindi grew agitated. A visitor that day remembers him charging his females and barking. Mia was holding Misha when a struggle broke out. One of Misha’s lower legs was found in the exhibit space. It’s believed Mshindi accidentally ripped it off, perhaps while trying to stop a fight between the females, a duty of the silverback. No keepers can say what happened for sure. But Misha was left with a stump. Mia had trouble caring for the partially disabled baby. So Misha was sent to the Columbus Zoo where they matched her with a surrogate. (A zoo employee in Columbus says that one year later Misha died of a parasite. Keepers were devastated. Misha had become a light for young children suffering from injury or illness.)

    Decades ago, hand-rearing a gorilla infant mirrored what you might find in a suburban nursery. There were diapers and cribs, baby food, and maybe even baby clothes. Not surprisingly, those gorillas did not assimilate with their species well. Dusty Lombardi, the Columbus Zoo’s hand-rearing expert, says she knew protocol needed an overhaul in the early ’80s. She had been raising a baby gorilla for more than two years, mostly in isolation. When she took the baby to see adult gorillas, it screamed and clung to her in fear. “We have to make changes. You’re afraid of gorillas,” she remembers thinking. Humans raising gorillas for too long can harm gorillas into the next generation. Studies have shown females may struggle with the ability to mother well and males can exhibit more aggression as adults.

    Lombardi helped write the manual on how to efficiently raise an orphaned gorilla and get it back with its kind, an ape-ified take on What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The recommendations are specific. Baby formula? Use Similac or Nestle Good Start. Right after birth? Hold that baby immediately to prevent hypothermia. Never leave the infant alone. “This inspires confidence and a sense of security,” the manual reads. (Kindi’s keepers have developed a smooth exchange they call the “Kindi shuffle.” If Kindi’s gripping the furry vest, the keeper in the vest takes one arm out, allowing another keeper to slide in, then repeats with the other arm. It looks a bit like square dancing. ) Finally, remember you’re a gorilla. “Make gorilla vocalizations while they are eating,” the manual instructs. “It is a guttural, open-mouth chewing sound.” Ummm-ummm-ummm.

    “Conditioning with the infant is key,” Lombardi says. “This infant has to know that it’s going to be raised by gorillas, next to gorillas. They have to know the sights, sounds, smells.” A big component to a successful surrogacy happens at the “mesh,” the welded stainless-steel gates made up of small squares big enough for gorilla fingers to poke through.

    It’s at the mesh where an alchemy known as “gorilla choice” occurs. Lombardi says for surrogacy to work, a female gorilla has to want the orphaned child. A female might feel drawn to the baby due to hormones or obligation or a desire for elevated status in the troop. Whatever the reason, a connection must be organic. When a female starts showing up at the mesh to touch and observe the baby, that gorilla’s probably a good candidate for adoptive mom.

    During Kindi’s first introductions at the mesh at just a few weeks old, Paki takes a pink hand towel with Kindi’s scent and inhales it. She pokes two fingers through the mesh and lets them rest on top of the baby’s fuzzy head. Later, she’ll stroke Kindi’s elbow and try to slide her finger into the baby’s hand, greeting Kindi in the same gentle manner she touched Mia’s lifeless body one last time. 

    Like with any new baby, time evaporates. 

    Day 18: Kindi leaves the hospital, moving into an isolated stall in Gorilla Forest. Keepers sleep on a mattress while Kindi rests on them at night. The zoo’s nine other gorillas visit Kindi at a baby-gate-sized mesh door dubbed “the howdy door.”

    One month: The mattress is replaced with hay and wood wool, materials Kindi will sleep and crawl around on with her gorilla family. This is also when she’s officially named. Kindi means “squirrel” in Swahili, a nod to her mother, nicknamed “squirrel” by keepers for her agility and spry ways.

    Nine weeks old: Kindi’s nearly five pounds. Now on exhibit four days a week, iPhones pop into the air like helium balloons, all angling for a picture of the baby whose fur stands like exclamation points atop her head.

    Ten weeks old: The zoo’s veterinarians arrange for imaging of her organs so that researchers can better understand the species in these infant years. Kindi also receives her polio and tetanus vaccinations. Baby gorillas don’t cry. When upset, she makes little duck lips and gives off a whimpering hoo hoo hoo.

    Eleven weeks old: Her black fuzz glows like copper in the sunlight of the outdoor yards. She continues to practice drinking bottles through mesh, the tip plunging neatly through a square. Baby gorillas nurse for three years. Once Kindi goes to a surrogate, a keeper will feed her bottles from the other side of the barrier.

    Twelve weeks: A first tooth pops from her lower gum. As more come in, keepers must bark when she bites. Her family won’t tolerate it. She’s got to learn that now. Kindi loves to yank hair, transforming keepers’ heads into tumbleweeds. They call it “hair by Kindi.”

    Fourteen weeks: Kindi awkwardly scoots about. She’s gaining a bit of independence, often keeping one hand on the fur vest but sometimes swinging one side away, flopping her head back for a look at the topsy-turvy world. 

    With Mia’s death, the Louisville Zoo has four adult female gorillas left. Keepers lovingly refer to two — Helen and Demba — as “the old ladies.” Helen’s one of the last gorillas in captivity captured as an infant in Cameroon, Africa, back in 1958. She’s pensive with graying sideburns. At first, she shows interest in Kindi. (And the biology is there. She’s her great-great-grandmother.) But she’s too old. Demba, her roommate, strikes a grumpy mood often. Save two old ladies and a little baby for a Pixar tale.

    That leaves Kwali and Paki as possible surrogates. By early summer, Kwali is considered the back-up surrogate. She has raised three babies. But after Paki inhaled that pink towel, she seems smitten. Gorilla’s choice. The 220-pound, 27-year-old born at the Bronx Zoo is relatively easy to pick out in Gorilla Forest. She likes to suck her finger and sit on a red blanket. Paki often walks and stands upright, parading her potbelly, perhaps a behavior she picked up when humans raised her as a baby.

    When Kindi is on the other side of the mesh, Paki leans her shoulder in, black fur jutting through the grid of squares. Beneath her heavy brow, what looks like a tender gaze often settles on Kindi. She’ll caress the baby’s neck. Sometimes when Kindi frightens and whimpers — hoo hooo hoo — it is Paki who will try to purr at her. Mmmmm. Kindi’s playful. Paki is too. She’s known to tickle Mshindi’s toes, trying to engage the serious silverback in games. “Paki needs to take that baby” is the unanimous sentiment among keepers.

    Katka thinks staff will introduce Paki to Kindi without mesh separation in mid-August. Wait any longer and Kindi might grow too attached to humans. A game plan is formed, rehearsed. In a back stall with two exits, someone will call Kindi to the mesh for a bottle. As she eats, the keeper wearing the fur vest will slip away. A wheel will crank, a door allowing Paki in will rise. Applesauce and sunflower seeds for foraging will have been scattered about, tempting Paki in. It will be morning, a calm time, just the radio probably tuned to the lite rock of 106.9, the preferred white noise of Gorilla Forest. Paki may scoop up Kindi immediately. It may take her awhile. Slowly, over several days or weeks, the rest of the family will join Paki and Kindi. Page 92 of the manual: “Once the silverback and all group members are spending 24 hours a day together, the introduction is considered complete.”

    Mshindi has shown no aggression toward Kindi. The muscular 28-year-old, who shares the dimensions of a loveseat when lying on his side, has poked fingers through mesh to pet her. One keeper swears he kissed Kindi’s fingers. He’s offered her pieces of straw. The Kindi Care Team, as they’re known, is feeling confident.

    Still, anxieties will spike on introduction day. Any and all animal introductions can end emotionally, maybe violently. Seeing that nine-pounder suddenly with giant gorillas, that’s intense. (“It will either be a beautiful, perfect experience or it will be scary,” one of the docents says to a talkative visitor who seems sincere and worried.) 

    The Columbus Zoo shared with Louisville keepers a volatile incident there involving a baby reunited with her mother who had to heal from a C-section. Upon seeing the infant, the mother batted it like a plaything. The infant shrieked, terrified. The two were instantly separated. Lombardi, the hand-rearing expert at the Columbus Zoo, says keepers kept calm, acting on cues from the baby’s grandmother. The grandmother seemed to want to nurture the young one. She was angry with the mother. Within minutes, the grandmother was let in. Mmmmm. “The infant was like, oh, you’re different,” Lombardi recalls. “The grandmother patted and touched her. It was like it was her baby from day one.” 

    It’s a muggy Thursday afternoon in early August. Kindi is on exhibit, delighting the masses as she tumbles in a cardboard citrus box and chews on a fire hose with her eight new teeth. Kindi’s crawl, more robotic than flowing at this stage, leads her to a Tupperware bin full of bananas and cucumbers. She pounds it, tipping it over. Onions are her favorite. Paki slides down a pole and presses against the mesh to watch the little one. She sucks a finger, pokes it through for a tickle and leans down to nuzzle Kindi’s head on her brawny shoulder.

    Katka, on exhibit with Kindi, is as natural a gorilla mom as any human can be. She keeps her eyes squinted, diverted from the madness of spastic kids slapping at the glass. Her mouth is caught between a smile and a straight line, like bliss wants to hatch. But there is a job to do. So focused, those squinted eyes. She crawls like a gorilla, nests hay like a gorilla getting ready to sleep. She picks a leaf of kale. Ummm-ummm-ummm.

    If her back is to the mesh, she tries to sense when Paki is creeping up, a feeling similar to someone walking up to an office cubicle.

    While one keeper describes being on exhibit as a “little like a fish bowl,” Katka likes to think of it as a private world, a place no one can parachute into. Those just a few feet away blocked by a pane of glass can’t even eavesdrop. So many noises back here — the chewing of celery, the flirtatious calls between one of the bachelors and Kwali, Mshindi’s subsequent barks to step off. There’s soft music from the radio and there’s all that gas. Gorillas eat a lot of roughage, so they’re not polite company.

    When on exhibit for an hour or two at a time, Katka’s mind never strays far from her private world, but it does linger at the glass. Her thoughts: I know there’s a docent out there interpreting. But do the people out there understand what they see? “We have this critically endangered animal that we need to get back with her species and a lot of times people think it’s about us — oh, I would like to be in there, aren’t you lucky, I’m going to become a vet tech so I can sit with a cute baby gorilla all day,” she says.

    “I don’t want people getting the wrong message, reducing it down to something so simplistic. I’m worried we’re not giving people enough, that there’s no way for us to impart to people how important this thing is. I find it disturbing that people say, ‘I want to do it, it’s so fun.’ It becomes so simplistic, so trite.” 

    Then, she might catch sight of a little girl, maybe the one with the tomato-red cheeks who seems so smitten with Kindi, her smile hanging as a frozen, joyful gasp. Maybe she’s the kind who rescues abandoned bunnies too. “Maybe seeing me in here with Kindi will inspire her to become the next Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey,” Dian Fossey,” Katka says. Maybe all this is about more than one species. 

    At about 2 in the afternoon, Williamson walks into the exhibit space with a warm Dr. Brown’s-brand bottle of soy formula and an L-shaped mesh gate that stands about waist high. She holds the gate with her right hand and pokes the bottle through mesh with her left. Kindi crawls to the mesh and starts to drink, her face just a few inches from Williamson’s Kindi tattoo on the inside of her left wrist.

    Taking a bottle through mesh without a problem, Kindi’s ready for life with her family. The introduction to Paki is nearing. When it happens, 24-hour Kindi care will cease. The schedule will lighten. And Kindi will be a gorilla. “It’s what’s supposed to happen, y’all,” a keeper whose own daughter is heading to college this fall recites. Kids grow up. Bonding time won’t disappear. It will now just involve a stainless-steel barrier. “We are super attached to her,” Katka says. “Our attachment will just be through mesh.”

    Unless the surrogacy doesn’t work. Then Kindi would transfer to a different zoo. It’s a possibility. Not one keepers dwell on. Katka packages this major next step as orderly, clean: “Once we open the gate and introduce her to Paki, we’re not taking her from Paki. The goal is to never step back in,” she says. “Take the vest off, send it back to Cincinnati. We don’t need it anymore.”

    There will never be another spring and summer like the one Gorilla Forest just wrapped. Most keepers describe the experience as a “privilege,” not one that they ever would’ve wished for, but one they would never now trade. Too much in five short months: the day they found Kindi’s tickle spots (lower belly, back of the neck); dozing with the gorilla infant so peacefully that the cadence of breaths, in and out, appear synced; Paki swooping to the mesh to peek at Kindi; Mia Moja’s death, a loss no one has had time to process. It’s been heartbreaking and amazing. It’s been exhausting and beautiful. It’s been motherhood.


    This originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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