By Hannah E. Jones
A furry little addition is at Zoo Atlanta — a western lowland gorilla named Willie B., III. After about eight and a half months of gestation, he was born on April 24 to Shalia and Willie B., Jr.
He’s the third generation of Willie B.’s, named after his grandfather who arrived in Atlanta when he was around two years old in 1961. This was a different version than the Zoo Atlanta that we know today, and Willie B. spent his first 27 years exclusively indoors.
The 1980s were a period of transformation for the zoo and with the opening of the Ford African Rain Forest in ‘88, Willie B. took his first outdoor steps since his early years in Africa. He passed away at age 42 in 2000. He had become an icon at the Zoo, and there’s a statue dedicated to him with pieces of it worn smooth from decades of affectionate pats from visitors.
Willie B., III’s birth was planned by the team as part of a species survival plan or, as Curator of Primates Jodi Carrigan describes it, “a dating service for animals.” Western Lowland Gorillas are designated as a critically endangered species, and the objective is to help the species maintain a healthy population.
The Zoo has 19 gorillas who are divided into four separate troops, including a family group, bachelors, older adults and Willie B., Jr.’s. Three females live with him — Shalia, Amari and Kambera — and based on medical and social tests, Shalia was selected as the optimal mate.
The planning process is much more intricate than one might expect. For example, in case Shalia had issues nursing the infant, the primate team used a stuffed gorilla to help train her to hand the baby to the handlers. Additionally, while she has a history of being a good mother with her first offspring, the team created a contingency plan for another gorilla to foster the baby if Shaila rejected him.
However, Shalia has proven to have a strong bond with her new son. The birth went smoothly and the team has been monitoring the pair from a distance.
“The newborns are very similar to human babies. They eat, sleep, poop, their eyes are open and repeat,” Carrigan said. “He’s super strong. That’s one thing that always amazes and fascinates me about newborn gorillas.”
Gorillas have about 20 vocalizations they use to communicate and, so far, Willie B., III only has two — the ones that indicate hunger and uncertainty. Shalia does the majority of the caregiving and will nurse for four years. Willie B., Jr. serves as the protector and, as the baby grows up, playmate.
“Gorilla moms are amazing, and they put a lot of parental investment into their offspring,” Carrigan said. “I’ve seen her patting his back or rubbing his head. She’s just been the sweetest with him.”
Willie B., III is the twenty-fifth gorilla born at Zoo Atlanta. The team is thrilled about the new addition and Carrigan believes that the birth will serve as a catalyst for visitors to become more interested and informed about the species and ways to help them.
For example, a material called “coltan” is critical for smartphones and other small electronics but the substance is found in the forests of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo — gorilla territory. To help offset the damage done, folks can bring their old cell phones to the Zoo to recycle them, and a donation will be made to The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
“Everybody wants to come see the baby which gives us the opportunity to inspire conservation action among them,” Carrigan said. “We have school groups that come back and bring cell phones with them because of things that we’ve talked to them about, and it’s neat to inspire that action.”