Primate Serenade

Monkey Jungle's lonely silverback gorilla finds solace in music

"There are several problems with [relocating]," responds veterinary primatologist Robert Cooper, husband of Sian Evans and a consultant at the DuMond conservancy. Cooper is a former director of the primatology center at the International Medical Research Center of Franceville in Gabon, West Africa, and also worked at Monkey Jungle. No one disputes the marginal quality of King's concrete-paved enclosure, Cooper says, but critics should also take into account that he's generally a happy gorilla. And the sensitive apes are usually quite traumatized by changes in environment. "If you like primates, King's living conditions are certainly not very sophisticated at all. You could build him something larger, which would cost probably several hundred thousand dollars, but the question is, Would it be better? Socially he would still come to people."

And then there's the mating dilemma. King's missing front teeth -- pieces of which have been found embedded in his gums, according to Evans -- make courtship, et cetera, problematic. Male gorillas must be able to discipline or control their mates, which they accomplish with their teeth.

For now King's concerns are more aesthetic. Jesse Bering has the three music therapists stand silently outside King's cage for fifteen minutes before they began singing, as a control measure to observe the gorilla's reaction. Gorillas are generally uncomfortable with eye contact either among themselves or with humans, and so the singers avoid looking directly at him. When the women fail to burst into song immediately, the gorilla charges the gate several times and spits through the bars.

Then the music starts and King grows attentive, sometimes propping a leg on a ledge near the gate, sometimes leaning his elbows on the ledge. When the therapists take out their African drums and maracas, he claps along.

Moran captures it all on videotape. She's planning to make a rock video as another form of music therapy for King, she says. The song, an original tune sung by a fifteen-year-old prodigy, is about the Earth and the sky and "getting out of cages," Moran explains. "My dream is to make enough money from the video so that some portion of the proceeds go to getting King in a better environment," she adds. "He's a lovely guy.

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