Gorillas in our Midst

He could have just bought a Harley – after all, he’s got the opposable thumbs. Four of them, virtually. Vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom. Or he could have dated some pretty young thing, grown a ponytail, taken up heli-snowboarding or maybe Tae-Bo. But instead, when Timmy turned 40 earlier this year, he headed off any impending mid-life crisis in a way fellow New Yorkers should appreciate: He got fab new digs. Timmy (his real name) is about to move into splendid living quarters that are sure to be the envy of the 340 other gorillas currently residing elsewhere in North America. The $43 million, 50,000-square-foot space includes what zoo officials describe as “private bedrooms” and a “penthouse” (actually enclosed alcoves off the main habitat), plus lots of rope-and-urethane vines on which their “tough clients” can swing toward solitude. And it’s roomy enough to accommodate not just Timmy but eighteen of his friends, rivals, children – even current and former lovers (okay: Triska, Holli, Huerfanita, Pattycake, Tunuka, and Paki; these are invasive times).

“It’s somewhat idealistic and romantic,” says John Gwynne, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s director for design, “but this city is about options, and we’re trying to give the gorillas options.”

The Congo Gorilla Forest, opening June 24 at the Bronx Zoo, is a landmark achievement for the WCS, and sure to be a huge draw. (In terms of gorilla consciousness-raising, its only real competition this summer is Disney’s Tarzan, and the WCS rain forest has at least one distinct advantage: no Phil Collins songs.) With its fluid design and cunning interactive and educational exhibits (visitors can choose which WCS program their $3 entrance fee is donated to), Congo Gorilla Forest moves persuasively in two directions: back toward the conservationists and scientists in central Africa who are working to save endangered wildlife, and out toward the zoo visitor, who in all likelihood has never seen gorillas in such unconfined yet intimate quarters.

And not just gorillas. Also okapis, red river hogs, Wolf’s and DeBrazza’s monkeys, mandrills, pythons, hornbills, various fishes and insects, and, while supplies last, some incongruous and rather alarmed-looking squirrels, chipmunks, and starlings, who even before the new tenants had completely moved in were looking a tad baffled – Equatorial rain forest? But we just got off the Cross-Bronx! Do you remember any signs for Ghana? They might as well be wearing tiny lapel buttons that say eat me – i’m indigenous.

At six and a half acres, the project represents a significant chunk of revitalized city real estate, a great, trendy new neighborhood in the Bronx: ConGo, anyone? But it also marks a watershed moment in the life of Timmy, an amiable Western lowland gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla). Born in Cameroon in 1959, Timmy moved in the early sixties to Memphis and then to Cleveland. He lived there until 1991, when the lure of a more swinging gorilla singles scene in the Bronx proved irresistible.

In Cleveland, Timmy’s dismal social life was a litany of heartbreak. Yogi had found him too young; Emmy, too old. And Kate – well, that was a close and loving relationship, but any hope of progeny was undone by Kate’s blocked fallopian tubes. So Timmy (was) moved on. His eastward-bound caravan was met by animal-rights activists in full protest mode (the chief grievance – sundered lovers wrenched from one another’s long, hairy arms, etc. – overlooked the fact that gorillas are not monogamous). Controversy gave way to voyeurism as Timmy hit the Big Apple and instantly became tabloid fodder. The entire city knew why he was here – to bonk as many females of his species as he possibly could – and that had to be tough for a shy guy from Cleveland who happened to weigh 430 pounds. The fishbowl component was even evident in a May 1992 zoo press release: “Timmy, the lowland gorilla on loan from Cleveland’s Metroparks Zoo, has been observed mating for the first time since arriving at the Bronx Zoo, New York Zoological Society officials announced this afternoon.” Who can blame Timmy for wanting to draw the curtain, or at least withdraw into some shrubbery? Beginning now, he can do it in style.

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.

“Here comes trouble,” says McCann, laughing as the gorilla, Julia, begins to flirt shamelessly – let’s just call it a weird lip thing – with a visitor. “Julia absolutely adores to be the center of attention,” McCann continues. “They truly each have their own personality. It makes us cater to each one’s individual needs. Some grow up together and keep their bonds – the twins we want to keep together forever. We also see personalities in certain lineages. Huerfanita’s offspring tend to have certain traits like her – carefree, easygoing. This sounds anthropomorphic, but we’re working with individual animals, and certain things come out.”

McCann calls her experience with Timmy “a treat.” “This was an animal who did not have any prior experience with infants, and he just turned out to be the most wonderful silverback,” she says. “He really seems to enjoy youngsters; he’s a great protector. We try to remind our keepers to think of a human late in life having to deal with many, many changes in lifestyle – and Timmy’s accepted them all incredibly well.”

Well, perhaps Tunuka has helped? Yes, and this shows just how neatly Timmy has avoided becoming an aging-male cliché: Tunuka is a 36-year-old grandmother, an older woman practically, like Timmy wild-born and rather shy. “Tunuka likes to stay very close to Tim,” McCann says. “They spend a lot of time together.” They are – let’s not put too fine a point on it – an item. Their daughter, Kumi, turns 1 this month.

So Timmy can survey the lush hills and waterfalls and hassock-size faux elephant dung of his new estate with pride. He can view with calm the okapis and hornbills and red river hogs and, sure, eastern gray squirrels (sciurus carolinensis) that frolic across his domain. But in the end it’s the fact that he’s surrounded by so much family that gives him perspective and a measure of tranquillity, and represents his real achievement. Here is a gorilla who has truly drunk life to the lees and yet can regard it all, the reversals and the triumphs, with both feet – better make that all four hands – firmly on the ground.

Gorillas in our Midst