Gorgeous turns 40 this year. That's a milestone in any female's life, no less so for Gorgeous just because she's a gorilla. She is one of only four mountain gorillas in captivity to attain this age. Her life expectancy is 45 years.
I wanted to meet her because I, too, turn 40 this year. (Along with Ivana Trump, Marilyn Quayle, Maytag's first automatic washer, the world's first prepared cake mix, and Dupont's miracle fiber Orlon.)"Gorgeous is a dear," says Lynn Davis, the marketing director at Hogle Zoo. Davis has come to see in zoo animals the same variety of or lack of personalities as in people. Gorgeous has personality.
Davis says, "She really is one of the most loved animals."
"That's because she's so special. So old. And has such sweet little ways," says Barb Boon, one of her keepers.
Gorgeous keeps her back to me at first, reclining and rolling her eyes occasionally to catch a glimpse of the people outside the glass. She has a lot of gray hair on her back now. (Funny, mine is graying faster around my face.) A cataract clouds her eye. Eventually she moves to the glass and puts her face up close so she can see. I sit down and peer back at her. "Doesn't she have a beautiful face?" asks Boon, proudly.
Through the bars of the cage door, Boon offers milk from a Hogle Zoo cup and several sections of orange. With offhanded grace, Gorgeous leans to drink and unfurls her fingers for the fruit.
Gorgeous keeps her weight at a strong but sleek 180-pounds by eating a pound of monkey chow, a cup of canned milk, five apples, four oranges, three carrots, two bananas, one-half bunch of celery and one-half bunch of spinach daily. "The milk is not necessary for nutrition," says Bob Pratt, head primate keeper. "But she grew up with it, and she's an old lady now and deserves to get what she's used to."
Gorgeous doesn't frolic around her concrete apartment the way young gorillas do. She swings on a rope to get up to a ledge, but it's been years since she swung for the pure joy of swinging.
At her most active, Gorgeous rolls in the straw, holding on to her food dish. "She takes her little bowl with her everywhere," explains Boon. "Sometimes she wears it as a hat."
She was born in Africa in either May or June of 1949, caught as a baby and sent to the Cheyene Mountain zoo near Denver. There she was raised alone.
Because she didn't grow up in a gorilla family, Gorgeous doesn't cope well with her fellow apes. Years ago, when she had ear mites, she developed that habit of covering her ears with her hands. The mites are gone, but the habit isn't.
When the chimpanzees get to playing and screeching, Gorgeous covers her ears. And sometimes for no apparent reason she seems overwhelmed. Then she turns her back to the window and covers her ears and apparently comforts herself.
When she is most upset, she'll spit. "The only time she ever attacked me was when there were a lot of strangers around," says Boon. Bob Pratt has been her keeper since she came to Utah in 1985. Gorgeous is closer to him than to anyone else, animal or human.
"She's jealous of me," he says. "I can send another keeper in to her alone, but if I come in with them she tries to defend me."
Pratt has worked with the primates for 25 years. Only in the past 15 years have we understood gorillas at all, he says. We used to think they were so wild and unpredictable that they'd never grow to adulthood in captivity. Then we thought they wanted to live as couples.
"Now we are starting to understand how psychologically and emotionally fragile they are," Pratt says. "We understand that they are a group animal."
He'd like Gorgeous to become a group animal and to be able to display her with the others - but only if Gorgeous could be happy that way.
Right now she is very upset by males. "She chases them and chases them, even if they aren't acting curious or aggressive toward her," Pratt says. He's afraid she'd chase them until she collapsed.
Gorgeous isn't upset about being in the same cage with Elaine, however. (Though Elaine, shabby friend that she is, prefers the company of males.) And Pratt puts them together often, hoping eventually Elaine will act as a buffer for Gorgeous, keeping the males away and making Gorgeous feel comfortable.
He will never force her to be with the group, Pratt says, if that encroaches on her life. "If she can get to the point where she can be with the others and choose to be solitary or choose to interact, then I'll put them together," he says.
Gorgeous approaches her 40th birthday in this condition: Her eyesight is failing and she's slowing down. But she is loved and cared for by people who truly understand her. Pratt says of her, "She's the epitome of a gorilla - she can act like a headstrong teenager, bless her heart, and basically she's soft, shy and curious."
Boon says of her, "What a sweetheart."