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Gorillas in our Midst


In the weeks just before the opening, Congo Gorilla Forest is still a work in progress. Indoor sections are a tangle of electrical tape, wires, ladders, and drills. Outside, the landscape is missing a few features: For instance, anyone hoping for a sneak preview of the "porcupine burrow with civet aroma" is just going to have to learn the meaning of patience. But much is already in place, like that mesh netting falling away like a big top from a huge dead tree in the middle of the mandrill exhibit -- nice idea. There's really no point giving this monkey a chance to extend its range to the Fordham campus, or the maples along Mosholu Parkway.

The gorillas are being introduced into their new environment gradually, and one wet, steamy morning -- no need to activate the ground-fog system today -- nearly a dozen come tumbling into view just in time to greet some visitors. Tunuka, Huerfanita, Triska, Fran, Halima, Pende, Chipua . . . it's Timmy's harem (Dan's is the other; adult male gorillas -- "silverbacks" -- preside over troops of adult females, younger males, and children). The old habitat was surrounded by a moat; you saw the apes at some remove. But Congo Gorilla Forest does a neat job of integrating humans into the animals' environment, rather than the other way around. "One of our challenges," says John Gwynne, "is to keep people from getting so excited that they head overland." So these extraordinary animals are visible among the bamboo thickets, rock promontories, and lush forest just the other side of unobtrusive inch-and-a-half-thick glass, against which they often press when they have visitors. Gwynne sees the habitat "as a big family room, and in one corner of it is a reception area where they can come and meet people -- think of it as their foyer."

This morning, the grown-ups settle down for a little contemplative branch-gnawing. The youngsters tear to and fro, playing and fighting, leaping at vines, tossing dry grass onto their own heads. It's like an enormous American Museum of Natural History diorama come thrillingly to life. Timmy hangs back, out of view. Determined never again to get caught up in that crazy celebrity merry-go-round? Growing misty over lost loves? Or just discussing a few little details with the contractor?

Still, Timmy's not quite as shy as he was once, according to an acquaintance of eight years, Dr. Colleen McCann, the zoo's associate curator of mammals. "He's become more accustomed to the public," she says. "He had been so sheltered before he came here because he was in an indoor exhibit, on a concrete floor, with only one other female. This space is wonderful -- lots of vegetation, and depth, and height. It's got trees and hills and things to climb on. It's stimulating. If you were sitting in the middle of a lawn with a hundred people looking in at you, I think you'd feel a little vulnerable. We've given the gorillas the opportunity to choose where they want to be."

Indeed, Congo Gorilla Forest, in the southwest corner of the zoo, is residential living for animals at its most luxe, but thankfully more trompe than Trump. There are 17,000 (real) plants, but also 55 artificial trees, ten miles of fake vines, and countless little ersatz-wildlife surprises scattered about. But the fake blends effortlessly with the real, and the more than 300 animals (75 species) that gambol or in any event proceed through the habitat are all flesh and blood. And if some of the trees are rigged with timed-release grain dispensers, what of it? Are the gorillas (who are primarily vegetarian) supposed to forage along Southern Boulevard in search of a decent deli?

It happens that an alcove upstairs in the education center (the second floor of the exhibit) is functioning this morning as a breakfast nook. Most of Dan's group -- minus Dan -- are there: Honi, Holli, Paki, Tuti, Tunko, Julia, the twins Ngoma and Tambo, and the imposing, and celebrated, Pattycake. Now 26, she is a former flame of Timmy's (Ngoma and Tambo are their love-children, two of eleven Timmy has sired) and was the first gorilla born in a New York zoo. Her portrait hangs near the entrance alongside those of other, human "leaders of Central African conservation." ("A photo," says John Gwynne. "We don't have enough time for oil paintings.") The moment Pattycake strolls off with her morning carrot, a younger female emerges from the underbrush.

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