When I’m having a bad day I like to go watch the gorilla orphans we are caring for in Kinigi.  They were the first gorillas I saw after my arrival – while I was in “quarantine” I was able to watch them over the wall of their enclosure, since there was no risk of disease transmission that way.  That first day was magical for me, they are all so happy and healthy now.  They each have a tragic story that is unknown to us – they were confiscated, all as babies.  You can only imagine how they were obtained.  A gorilla mother and her group would not give up her baby willingly.

At Kinigi, we have 6 Grauer’s gorilla orphans (used to be called Eastern Lowland Gorillas) and 2 Mountain Gorilla orphans.  In Goma, DRC there are 2 Mountain gorilla and 3 Grauer’s gorilla orphans.  They are the lucky ones – they survived their early horrible ordeals, and now live comfortably with each other in a large enclosure, cared for by consistent caretakers who love them, provided with a wonderful diet including natural forest food, and provided with good medical care. That’s why I love watching them – they are active, playful, sneaky and funny, and they make me feel happy that we have been able to save their lives, and provide a safe haven for them as they learn to be gorillas again.

Here is a quick introduction to our Kinigi kids:

MAISHA means “life”.  She is a Mountain Gorilla, and was confiscated from poachers when she was roughly three years old in 2004. She and Pinga are oldest orphans, and Maisha is clearly the leader of the group.  She is one of 3 female Mountain Gorillas in human care. The other two are our orphans in Goma, DRC whose mothers were shot during  the gorilla murders there in 2007.

PINGA is a Grauer’s gorilla, also roughly eight years old.  She and Maisha are good friends.  Pinga loves food, and is usually the first and fasted to gather food when it is delivered!

NTABOWBA is a Grauer’s gorilla, roughly seven and a half years old.  He has a flare for mischief, and he regularly patrols the whole enclosure searching for ways to create his own exclusive objects of fun – which might include steeling key from his caretaker and initiating a chase!  His name means “fearless” and he loves to display toward his human visitors, but around Maisha and Pinga he is quite cautious.

KABOKO is roughly 6 years old, and is the only male Mountain gorilla anywhere in the world in human care.  He’s good friends with Ntabowba.  His name means “one missing an arm” – his right hand had to be amputated immediately after his confiscation due to a serious infection caused by a snare. But he gets along quite well and plays, climbs and wrestles just like all the others!

SERUFULI, named after a DRC Governor, is roughly six and a half years old and is another Grauer’s gorilla. She is a quiet, peaceful, beautiful young girl who gets along well with everyone.

ITERBERO, a roughly seven year old Grauer’s gorilla, is a delightful and playful young girl, who is a bit of a tomboy.  She enjoys rough and tumble play with Ntabwoba and Kaboko. Sandy Jones, the person who coordinates all orphan care, tells me she is a very intelligent gorilla – she surprised everyone with her ability for tool use. She developed a technique to crack nuts in the same skilful fashion that wild chimpanzee’s have been seen to demonstrate.

DUNIA is about five years old and is a happy little female Grauer’s gorilla. Although all the gorillas enjoy the enrichment items given to them, Dunia seems to appreciate them the most, sometimes playing for an hour or more with a specific object. While she’ll also play with the other gorillas, she and Tumani seem to have a special relationship.

TUMAINI is roughly three years old, is the youngest orphan in this group and is a real cutie-pie. Although she no longer constantly requests it, she is still provided with the much needed protection, support and comfort of her human caregivers.

Each orphan receives an annual examination, just like a human child.  When they are small that exercise is easy – the caretaker is able to hold the baby while a quick anesthetic injection is given.  When they are bigger, things become a little more complicated!    Yesterday Dr. Magda, Dr. Jean-Felix and I joined Sandy in Kinigi for Pinga’s annual exam.  Pings is big, very wise, and has strong opinions about injections, so there was no safe opportunity for a quick injection!   Pinga has been healthy for the past year, except for a chronic runny nose, only from the right nostril.  This has been off and on for some weeks, with a little more sneezing lately, so we were very interested to get a look in her nose.   We suspected she had what we call a “foreign body” in that nostril, since she had never been sick, but there were any number of other potential causes of this intermittent, chronic discharge.  We’d soon find out!

We set up our “clinic” in the kitchen of the orphan facility, and prepared to shoot a flying dart at Pinga, that was filled with anesthetic.  Easier said than done.  As soon as the group saw the dart pistol and pole they were on red alert, and somehow Pinga figured out that she was the object of our attention.  The gorillas are very tuned into body language.  There were many grunts and serious, suspicious looks as we tried to out maneuver and out wit our little girl.   Thirty minutes later, after much patience, Dr. Magda fired the pistol, successfully injecting the drug into Pinga’s leg.  It was interesting that as she moved off to go to sleep under the watchful eyes of the caregivers, the others immediately dropped their defensive postures and came right over to us to get treats, although all had an eye on Dr. Magda!

Once Pinga was fully asleep, the others were distracted with food and the caregivers carefully carried her out of the enclosure and onto our exam table.  Pinga was given a thorough physical examination, just like at the pediatrician’s office.  We looked into her eyes, ears and mouth. Counted her teeth.  Checked for injury.  Listened to her heart and lungs and palpated her abdomen.  She was given her annual TB test.  Blood was collected for all manner of tests.  She had already been given all her routine vaccines, so no further injections were necessary.  Then it was time to look in her nose.  We have an instrument that supplies light for looking into a small space, and oh my, there was a lot of white, gooey material way up in her nostril.  A culture swab was taken so we could find out what bacteria were causing the infection, and then we carefully inserted a hemostat into the nostril to see what we could find.  After only 3 tries a 1 inch stick was produced!   Poor Pinga!  This has been the cause of her discomfort, and she should feel MUCH better in a day or so.  It was a relief for us to find a simple solution to her minor medical condition.

Dr. Jean-Felix and Dr. Magdalena examining sedated Pinga

Dr. Magdalena doing the TB test on Pinga’s eyelid

Dr. Jean-Felix examining the nostril in question

The stick we pulled out of her nostril

We were done with Pinga’s exam after 40 minutes, and it was time to wake her up.  Caregivers carried her back into the enclosure while Sandy tried to distract the others with food.  But the return of Pinga proved to be too interesting, and the group left their treats to watch the proceedings as Pinga was placed into the night house for her recovery.  She woke up quickly, but stayed in the night house for a bit until caregivers felt she was completely back to normal behavior.   I’m anxious to see how quickly her nostril clears up.  I remember when my niece had a bead in her nostril when she was little – once it came out at the pediatrician’s office she had immediate relief!!!

All the orphans crowding around the night house to get a look at Pinga while she recovered.

Over the next several weeks we will be doing examinations on each of the other orphans.  They will receive TB tests, routine vaccinations and all the other monitoring required to be sure they continue to stay healthy and happy. 

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