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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Our Personal Grief Over Harambe--Our Friend, Caesar

When my oldest was little, we used to go to the Los Angeles Zoo and visit with Caesar, the gorilla. 

Caesar was the first gorilla born in captivity with a successful Caesarean birth--hence his name. He had been hand raised and didn't get along with the other, mother-raised gorillas, so he had his own space. 

My oldest and I had a special feeling for gorillas. When he was a baby, we had visited the San Diego Zoo. That zoo's gorilla enclosure is huge and naturalistic, with long plexiglass windows in the viewing areas, where every afternoon, the gorillas gather, their backs to the crowd, and wait for feeding time--fruit, vegetables, play things. 

This was winter, without too many people around and because I had read about a gorilla mom raised in captivity who had been taught to nurse by humans holding a kind of nurse-in, I decided to nurse my baby while sitting next to the gorillas. 

Yes, next to them. The plexiglass that divided us was held in place by concrete shelf below, extending on either side of the glass. The gorillas sat on their side, while humans held their babies to stand on the ledge on our side.  I put my baby in position and lifted the nursing shirt.

The female gorilla next to me turned and looked at us, her eyebrows raised. We were as close as if we were having tea, or sitting in an old-fashioned courting seat, back to back, but nearly touching. I smiled and nodded, and the gorilla's face relaxed. We sat together, we sat for twelve and a half minutes while the baby nursed, patting the glass, looking back and forth between our two faces--the gorilla female's and mine. 

It was one of the most astonishing things I have ever experienced. Hers was the only face turned our way. The rest of the gorillas were, understandably, facing the other way--honestly, sometimes at the monkey enclosure, I think that the primates who should be behind the barriers are those taunting the animals. This felt so different--so together. A calm, quiet, intense experience. And why shouldn't we connect? She clearly knew what an infant looked like, and what nursing was. Her astonishment--and that's what it seemed like--was that I did, too. 

So, when my now-toddler and I would visit Caesar, we would sit by his enclosure and I would cuddle my child, and pretend to "groom" his head for nits, while Caesar would come as close to us as possible and just sit with us, quietly, like we were all having tea. 

Thank you, Ken Lubas, Getty Images. 
After awhile, we began to bring food, to extend the sitting time for an active toddler. Nothing fancy, maybe oranges, bread, cheese, an apple. Caesar seemed interested, but he didn't act as though we were taunting him with food. He would just sit with us as long as we stayed and leave when we left, going back into his cave place to become invisible.
If, as we left, another child approached, disappointed that there was no gorilla, we'd come back to the enclosure and sure enough. Caesar would peek out, and then come to the edge to see us again. We'd say hello, introduce him to the child, explain about being friendly with Caesar--being quiet, kind, being kind to one another-- and after awhile, we'd leave. 

Caesar always left when we did. He always came out when we arrived. 

Before we moved from Los Angeles, we said goodbye to him. It was hard to leave him. We were living far away when we heard they'd moved him to the Denver Zoo. My little one and I talked about how Caesar must be missing his family who had raised him and his friends, just like my child was. We made plans to visit him in Denver, but Caesar died first, of some kind of rare inflammatory bowel disease. We were so sad when we heard he died. I don't care what they say; I have always thought he died of grief over being moved. They couldn't explain, and he didn't understand. And he missed them. 

When we heard about Harambe, shot to death, my son was very upset, and so was I. My compassionate kid was so angry that he said they should have let the child die--how many children there are in the world, he said, and how few gorillas. I helped my child find gorilla specialists who explained that Harambe's behavior was aggressive, not caring. At least my kid didn't leap to the idea that zoo enclosures are evil. Gorillas in the wild are so deeply threatened that we must work on both fronts to save these incredible creatures. Instead, he read more about designing zoo enclosures--like the rest of the world, he is looking for someone to blame. 

I know better. Sometimes, horrible things happen to perfectly innocent gorillas. Rest in peace, Caesar, and Harambe. May we someday make the world safe for you. 


  1. I enjoyed reading your piece. I happened to stumble upon your story on a web search i did for Baby Caeser. (He happened to cross my mind for some reason.) :)
    Juan Rodriguez