In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Linda Roberts, supervisor of the World of Primates at the Fort Worth Zoo, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff. As the zoo celebrates 30 years since it reopened as a public-private partnership, Roberts reflects on her 31 years working at the zoo and strategies for successful primate introductions.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Linda Roberts: My name is Linda Roberts. My title is supervisor of the World of Primates at the Fort Worth Zoo. I came down here in October of 1990.
Marcheta Fornoff: You’re celebrating a big anniversary just as the zoo is celebrating a big anniversary.
Roberts: Yes, I had worked at the Bronx Zoo through the ‘80s, and when I came to Fort Worth the World of Primates was under construction. Some of the younger keepers who don’t know me very well said the building was actually built around me. That’s not true. It was half built already before I got here (laughs).
But, I came down because the attraction was that we had all four great apes at that time. We had gorillas, we had bonobos, we had chimpanzees, we had orangutans. It was a very unique situation to be able to work with everything in one area, because many zoos end up dividing them up by habitat. So you work with some apes, but not others. So that was a big attraction for me because in the Bronx Zoo, I worked with gorillas.
When I first came down here, I ended up working mainly with gorillas. We transferred a couple of baby gorillas and I was helping them form a troop between these two 3-year-olds, an adult female and an adult male. Based on my experience with the gorilla introductions, that’s why I ended up spending most of my time with gorillas. But I did get to learn a lot about bonobos and chimpanzees and orangutans and work with them from time to time too.
Fornoff: Excellent. I know there’s been a new introduction as well. I’d love if you’d talk more about it.
Roberts: We brought in a new female with her 4-year-old son and her name is Sekani and his name is Bukavu. Bukavu is actually named after a town. They came in here from Little Rock Zoo, and we had them quarantined. We got to know them and they got to know us a little bit and then we started to introduce them to our females. A silverback gorilla is extremely large compared to females and extremely large compared to a 4-year-old. Putting a silverback in with a 4-year-old baby that is not his own son can be tricky.
Our silverback Elmo is a big pussycat. Now, having said that, you still have to keep in mind he is a gorilla and nothing can be guaranteed. But he tends to be a very gentle animal. And we thought we would see how he would do with Bukavu. In order to make sure Bukavu has the best advantage, we have to make sure the females all bonded first. So we want all our girls together and getting along, and they’ll help protect Bukavu if they have to. And that’s the stage we’re in right now. The girls are getting to know each other.
Fornoff: So Sekani, Bukavu’s mom, you’re introducing her to the other females?
Roberts: Right now, currently we have Gracie and Gus, and they’re mother and son also, so they are (all) together.
The females are a little nervous around each other. The boys are only two years apart in age because Gus is 6 and Bukavu is 4, so they are playing, wrestling and having the best time ever. And the females are like, ‘Uh, uh, uh,” if they think they’re getting too rough. Sekani sometimes tries to protect her son if Gus gets too rough. It’s a learning curve because Gus has never seen a gorilla smaller than himself before, so he’s really excited about that.
Fornoff: Can you talk a little bit about how long the quarantine was and how you first introduced Bukavu and Sekani to Gus and his mom (Gracie)?
Roberts: Yes, we had them in quarantine for 30 days. They were over in an off-exhibit area so they could go inside, outside, they could get to know the keepers better because you do form a relationship with these animals. Different keepers have different relationships with each one of them. They recognize us as individuals, and we bond with them as well. So that was their first bonding experience.
We did try Winifred first. Winifred is another female in our group who we thought maybe needed a friend. They got along, but they didn’t grow any type of real bond, so that’s when we decided to try Gracie and Gus instead.
Fornoff: What signals are you looking for that this is going well or, you know, they get along fine, but they’re not bonded. How do you identify that?
Roberts: How close they get in proximity to each other. Gorillas, when they’re stressed, they get tight lips almost like when people get mad and they kind of purse their lips. Gorillas will do that. And they have this stiff legged run, so we’re looking for that to diminish.
We’re (also) looking at eating behavior, eating gorillas are happy gorillas, and how close they will get to each other. Right now, we’re still in the run by stage. One will be sitting there and Gracie will run by. Sekani is pretty chill. If there is food, she doesn’t care who she’s with, she’s eating. Gracie is the one we’re waiting to calm down a little bit, but this is her home territory.
Fornoff: So they get protective of their space?
Roberts: Yes. This is a new female migrating into a troop. Females do have a dominance hierarchy, so we are finding our footing with that and seeing who’s going to be dominant over who. And then the silverback’s job is if the females have disputes, he breaks it up.
Fornoff: You mentioned that you wanted to help Bukavu and the silverback get along. Part of that was making sure the females were on his side. (Can you) talk about how that relationship works and why that’s so important?
Roberts: Well, gorilla females run around 200 pounds. Silverback males run around 400. Silverbacks can seriously injure or kill a female. In some of my time with gorillas, I’ve seen females that didn’t get along that well. But if the silverback was picking on one of them, all of a sudden those two girls became sisters. So we’re looking for that type of relationship to develop between Sekani and Gracie and Winifred, so that if Elmo gets testy or pushy or a little too rough with anything, they’ll step in.
Fornoff: I want to rewind a little bit. You came from the Bronx Zoo. What was your education or training prior to going to the Bronx Zoo? How did you learn about animal hierarchies and modes of communication?
Roberts: Well, I mean, a lot of it is on the job as you go. But I was a physical anthropology and biology major in college. So I got my bachelors of science, and I really was geared up to working in museums. I wanted to be Mary Leakey.
I ended up volunteering at the Bronx Zoo as something extra to put on my graduate school application. When I started working there, I decided I really liked it. They put me with the most disgusting animals in the beginning as a volunteer. They were like, if she likes hippos and anteaters and tapirs, she’ll like any of them. They’re swampy animals, lots of water and lots of yuck.
I really liked working with animals and learning about them, but my heart always belonged to primates.
Fornoff: You talked about the appeal of being here was being able to work with the four great (apes). Do you have a particular highlight of your (three) decades working with those animals here?
Roberts: I think my main highlight was when Gus was born. We were nervous because Elmo, Winifred and Jackie, the three of them really thought they were the only gorillas in the world. Gracie came to us from Oklahoma City. She had seen baby gorillas. She had seen other gorillas give birth, but she herself never had a baby.
We found out she was pregnant, and Gracie was very good. She knew what to do. She knew how to clean it up. She knew how to take care of it. And we did a 24-hour watch to make sure it nursed. And you could tell by the little Dizzy Gillespie cheeks that kept going in and out that he was getting enough milk.
That was absolutely phenomenal to see her, the first-time mom, take care of the baby and especially to have the other three gorillas stand around and watch and let her be. It was perfect. We couldn’t have asked for a better scenario.
Fornoff: There are keeper chats at the zoo. And I’m curious what you hope visitors take away from being able to see animals interacting with one another, especially primates?
Roberts: I mean, the zoo is your first-hand introduction to conservation (and) animal behavior.
I’ve been all around the world. I just came back from Uganda to see gorillas in the wild, and I meet people on these trips that are like, ‘Oh, it’s horrible to see animals in captivity, you know?’ and, ‘I would only see animals in the wild.’ Well, that’s good for you, but not everybody can afford that luxury. In order to appreciate these animals and try to conserve their natural habitat, you need to be able to learn about them. And firsthand at a zoo is the best way of doing that.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.