Sorry, but the Zoo Miami Gorilla Isn't Using Sign Language

Photo by Matthew Hoelscher / Flickr
A silverback gorilla at Zoo Miami.
Lately, Twitter has been ablaze with minute-to-minute updates about coronavirus and confirmed cases.

But once in a while, something cuts through the bad news, including one adorable video of a Zoo Miami gorilla. Last week, the Twitter account @welcomet0nature tweeted a video purportedly showing the silverback using sign language to tell a visitor not to feed him. The video received more than 5,700 retweets and 28,600 likes.

We here at New Times love finding these gems and figuring out whether they're real. Spoiler alert: Many times, they're not. No doubt we're raining on your parade, but, hey, that's journalism.
New Times sent the video to Ron Magill, the zoo's longtime spokesperson, to verify whether it was taken at Zoo Miami. The footage doesn't show much of the gorilla's surroundings, but Magill recognized the primate immediately.

"Every gorilla's face and chimp's face is different from the next, just like a human's face is different from the next," he says. "They're as distinct as human beings are. It's just a matter of knowing them."

Magill identified the gorilla as J.J., short for Jimmy Jr. But J.J. died in 2014 of advanced heart disease, according to a Miami Herald story.
So the video was taken at Zoo Miami, but it's about six years old. And the central character is no longer with us.

As for the sign language claim, gorillas certainly can learn to express themselves that way. For example, Koko, the western lowland gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, became something of a celebrity because of her sign language proficiency.

But Magill, a renowned wildlife expert, got to know J.J. well during the gorilla's 30 years at the zoo and says J.J. probably wasn't using sign language.

"He certainly wouldn't sign, 'Please don't feed me,'" Magill says.

To Magill, it appears J.J. might have been using some kind of reverse psychology to get what he wanted: the food he's eating at the beginning of the video.

Magill says Zoo Miami employees condition animals through positive reinforcement such as giving them treats. If the medical staffers need an animal to move a certain way for an examination, for example, they will give the animal its favorite food as a reward for following instructions. Once animals learn that doing certain things will earn them food, they begin repeating those movements in hopes of scoring more treats.

"With that gorilla, he was just doing a series of movements that, at one time or another, resulted in him getting a reward," Magill says. "It's far-fetched to think that an animal will say, 'I really love this, but it's not good for me, so don't give it to me.'"