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8-week-old baby gorilla draws national media crowd

11:28 AM, Mar 28, 2013   |    comments
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If she isn't already, Gladys the gorilla will likely be the most high-profile, non-human primate on the planet.

This week the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden's 8-week-old western lowland gorilla is getting her first up-close exposure to news media, and vice versa. The Enquirer dropped in Tuesday and Wednesday, and ABC News arrived Wednesday to film segments airing today on Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer. A CBS This Morning crew comes in today, followed by Inside Edition on Friday.

If our visits proved the rule, they'll find Gladys a real charmer. That little girl makes great eye contact.

She's garnering more attention than usual because she was rejected by her mother immediately after her birth Jan. 29 at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. If the baby is to survive and thrive, she needs a surrogate mother.

It's especially important because maintaining a captive population is crucial since western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild.

Groups that manage North American gorillas decided to relocate her to Cincinnati, where 10 human surrogates are caring for Gladys until one of the zoo's female gorillas assumes the role of surrogate mom, a transition that could take several months.

"That will be the day that all this hard work pays off," said primate keeper Ashley O'Connell, wearing a black furry vest and knee pads as she held Gladys in her lap. O'Connell and other surrogates mimic many of the things a gorilla mom might do with her baby. So in the behind-the-scenes "baby suite" at Gorilla World, O'Connell got down on all fours and crawled around with 9-pound Gladys clinging tightly to her back. After a few passes around the enclosure, Gladys was asleep - but still hanging on.

It's a good sign. Gladys needs to master such behavior before she transitions to the world of captive gorillas. "She's at the age now where she really starts growing by leaps and bounds," said Ron Evans, the zoo's primate team leader.

She's bottle-fed five times a day and has begun eating some cooked solid foods, such as sweet potatoes and carrots. She's teething this week; two lower incisors were the first to break through.

She can roll over and sit up by herself. She scoots around on her belly. Also this week, for the first time, she moved from her belly to all fours. "The next step, she'll be able to (knuckle) walk around by herself," Evans said. The surrogates, who are with her 24/7, will do that, too.

Since Gladys arrived in Cincinnati Feb. 22, much of the focus has been on health assessments, from blood work to fecal checks. "She's passing with flying colors," Evans said.

Now, more emphasis will be placed on introducing her to her gorilla family. Already, human surrogates have been regularly showing her to the other gorillas; they've been able to put a hand through their enclosures and gently touch Gladys on the head and back.

The most likely gorilla surrogates are Samantha, 43, and M'Linzi, 30; both are experienced moms. But two teens, Chewie and Mara, "are just infatuated with this kid," Evans said. Ultimately, "the gorillas have to decide who this baby's mom is going to be."

It could happen in month or two or three. "The older (Gladys) gets ... the more she will imprint on people, the harder it will be to make that transfer," Evans said. "So the younger, the better."

In the meantime, Gladys spends lots of quality time with surrogates such as O'Connell, whose first child was born just five months ago.

"I feel like I'm a mother of two right now," she said. "If I have to be away from my own child, this is where I want to be."

John Johnston, Cincinnati.com

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