The sun bores into your back as you trudge along the winding path to the gorilla cage at Monkey Jungle. Macaques scamper on wire mesh overhead, and the sweaty, almost human odor of gorilla wafts out among the whirling flies and gnats. And then you see three women lined up on the grass outside a concrete enclosure. One of them is strumming a guitar, and they're singing "You Are My Sunshine" in three-part harmony. A fourth woman is aiming a video camera -- not on the singers but on the rapt creature behind the barred gate of the enclosure.
His name is King, and he's a gorilla with a lot of baggage. King's life has been tough ever since he left his native Cameroon at a young age -- sold to a Las Vegas stage show, where his front teeth were knocked out to keep him from biting his trainers, and then to a travelling circus. Things didn't get much easier when King came to Monkey Jungle seventeen years ago at the age of ten. Mitzi, the South Dade tourist attraction's female gorilla, couldn't stand him. After Mitzi died, he never got another gorilla to play with.
But King's human keepers are eager to make him happy. Trainer Tina Casquarelli, and primatologist Sian Evans, program coordinator at the DuMond Conservancy, a nonprofit primate behavioral research organization housed at Monkey Jungle, both spend hours with him and are constantly thinking of ways to enhance his "social stimulation." They noticed he seemed to enjoy music and were thrilled one day when "Tequila" came on the radio and King started dancing -- no doubt a carryover from his days in show biz. And Jacque Moran, a flamenco dancer who has developed a particular devotion to King through her volunteer work at Monkey Jungle, appeared to have a spellbinding effect on him when she played her castanets or sang "Getting to Know You."
Then Jesse Bering, an anthropology student at Florida Atlantic University, arrived at the DuMond Conservancy this past May for an internship. Bering was the one who thought of trying formal music therapy for the solitary silverback. "I mainly wanted to increase his activity level," says the bespectacled Bering, who wants to continue his research into the cognitive psychology of apes after he graduates next year. "I thought he needed some auditory enrichment -- it seems to be something no one has tried."
Evans, a tiny sprite of a Welshwoman who spent six years in West Africa during the Eighties conducting behavioral research with captive gorillas and chimpanzees, thought Bering's idea had promise, especially given King's performing past. But the project started slowly.
First there was the problem of finding a real music therapist. "We called the National Association of Music Therapy for referrals, and then we called music therapists," Evans recounts. "They weren't very interested. I don't think they'd ever thought of working with an ape." Finally Marcia-Lynn Faber, a board-certified registered music therapist who is clinical training director at the Claridge House Nursing Home in North Miami, answered the challenge. She comes down every Tuesday with her guitar, percussion instruments, and two interns to serenade King.
On other days King listens to recorded music. Bering's idea was to expose him to as many styles as possible, but King seemed to have definite likes and dislikes. Perhaps owing to his experience in Vegas, he couldn't tolerate Frank Sinatra. "After I put on the Sinatra song 'Young at Heart,'" Bering says, "he walked away and went to sit in a corner. Then Marvin Gaye came on -- 'I'll Be Doggone.' [King] came back for that, and he was showing lots of facial expressions. When I played opera, the Three Tenors, he was very interested, and when it got to a sad part, you could see sadness in his face. It was amazing."
So far King seems to be reacting positively to his weekly live concert, although formal scientific observations have only just begun. Evans has come to one conclusion: "He really responds to a bevy of women."
King, a handsome ape sporting a Don King-like shock of red hair, lives in a small outdoor enclosure with an air-conditioned, TV-equipped "night house" in back, a concession to gorillas' fondness for seclusion and shade. He likes to watch cartoons on TV (especially Barney & Friends). Despite these amenities, King's living conditions have been the object of unfavorable attention from the small world of gorilla keepers and breeders.
Since 1970 it has been illegal to import gorillas (an endangered species) into most countries, and in order to ensure they live and reproduce in the best possible conditions, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) manages the gorillas now in captivity in North America as a single population. The association must approve any zoo's acquisition of a gorilla and may broker placement of single gorillas within larger social groups. Monkey Jungle lost its AZA accreditation several years ago (for reasons unrelated to animal welfare), but the AZA is urging the park's owners to send King to a bigger home, preferably one with a compatible female. The shortcomings of King's current enclosure, experts agree, are its small size and the lack of any foliage or "natural" outdoor area.
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.