Updated 11:15 a.m.
The Jacksonville Zoo hopes its gorilla Kumbuka will soon become a first-time mom. But Kumbuka’s journey to motherhood has been complicated by the recent discovery that she’s deaf.
Jacksonville Zoo veterinarian Dr. Yousuf Jafarey said there is often tension between Kumbuka and the other gorillas because she doesn’t hear social cues. He said helping Kumbuka overcome socialization problems within her gorilla family is an important step to having a baby.
“The challenge arises in that other females, they view Kumbuka differently. We are concerned about if she does have a baby, how will the troupe handle that baby? How will she handle that baby?” he said.
Zoo official JJ Vitale recounted a recent scenario that helped keepers realize Kumbuka had a hearing problem.
She said the zoo staff gave all the gorillas whole coconuts. The other gorillas took their coconuts and banged them on the wall to get them open, but Kumbuka did not hear the banging noise, so she did not understand the need for a hard surface to open hers. She started dropping her coconut on her soft hammock, but over and over again it just bounced back into the air. Finally, when keepers were able to get her attention and point out the wall trick, she threw it against the wall, picked up the broken coconut, and enjoyed her sweet treat.
“It was great. But it just kinda goes to show the fact that she’s not going to pick up on these things that the rest of the troupe is doing, without occasionally needing a little bit of help from her keepers,” she said. “They are doing everything they can to make sure she fits into this group and is a productive member of it.”
Kumbuka moved from the Zoo Miami to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2015 in order to begin the breeding process. Jafarey said she has had a hard time fitting in with the other gorillas since arriving at the Great Apes exhibit, and keepers began to notice that her behavior was similar to a deaf child.
To confirm the diagnosis, the zoo partnered with Nemours Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville. Pediatric audiologist Dr. Christine Cook and pediatric otologist Dr. Drew Horlbeck performed a hearing test on a sedated Kumbuka.
“This is something that I do every day with my patients at Nemours but this was the chance of a lifetime in my opinion,” Cook said. “Walking up to her for the first time, it took my breath away.”
Kumbuka is a critically endangered Western Lowland Gorilla. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are less than 100 thousand of these gorillas left in the wild. The WWF said the Western Lowland population has decreased by 60 percent since the early 1990s due to poaching, disease and habitat loss. Even if all threats to gorillas were eliminated, it would still take nearly 75 years for them to recover.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of the gorilla Kumbuka.