Happy Birthday, Joanne!

On March 12, 2018, Safari Park gorilla Joanne turned a year older. It didn’t take many words for Peggy Sexton, lead keeper, to sum up the “birthday gorilla”: “She’s four years old and adorable!”

Currently, she plays mostly with 17-month-old Leslie (the youngest member of the Park’s gorilla troop) and Monroe, who turns 8 years old next month. She has maintained some of the “sweet and sassy” attitude, and it’s reflected in her interactions with her two favorite playmates. She’s gentle with tiny Leslie, turning to Monroe for more rough-and-tumble type of action.

She is an eager participant and quick learner when it comes to training for health care behaviors with her trainers, but she still keeps them on their toes. The gorillas receive specially formulated biscuits as well as fruits while back in the night house with the trainers. “Sometimes,” says Peggy, “she’ll spit her biscuit out if you don’t watch her carefully. But she doesn’t get her fruit until she eats her biscuit. She likes the biscuit, but likes the fruit better.” Still, the patient keepers make sure she gets the nutritionally balanced biscuit AND the fruit.

When it comes to food, Joanne takes her time and enjoys each morsel—unlike her mother, Imani, who eats at an impressive pace. Joanne’s favorite foods include walnuts and Brazil nuts, but topping the list are strawberries.

Joanne is a special gorilla for her personality, but also because her start in life was not an easy one. She was born in 2014, at the Harter Veterinary Hospital via a rare emergency C-section, which was needed due to complications during first-time mother Imani’s labor. After 11 days of intense medical care, Joanne was strong and healthy enough to travel to the gorilla house to be reunited with her mother. Imani picked her up immediately and after a short time, other troop members were allowed to meet Joanne.

Although Joanne gets almost all of her nutrition from solid foods, she still nurses a bit…but not for long. Imani is weaning her daughter and like so many offspring, Joanne isn’t thrilled about that. As she moves from infancy to the juvenile stage, she’s being educated by the other gorillas on the “rules of the troop.” Babies can get away with a great deal, but with age comes responsibility. Yet with her blend of “sweet and sass,” Joanne is growing with the flow.

Wendy Perkins is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her recent article, Wonderful Winston.