Thursday, October 25, 2007



OCTOBER 18, 2007

Sometimes it really doesn't pay to listen to Maude. Gorilla Haven in north Georgia is a relatively short drive from Murphy, North Carolina where I stayed overnight. But, after turning on to Highway 60 in Georgia, she told me to turn off at Dean Road -- a single lane gravel road twisting up and around a small mountain. I hesitated, but I knew that Jane and Steuart Dewar did live in the mountains, so thought, okay Maude, lead the way. After some miles, I passed a man in a pickup truck and asked him if he knew where Gorilla Haven was. He had no idea, but suggested I head to a Citgo station for directions. This didn't look too promising, but then I hit a two-lane paved road and saw a woman out walking her dogs and asked her. She told me that it was just around the corner. Later on, when I consulted the map that Jane had provided, I saw a much easier route to take. Steuart later told me that a GPS cannot read the coordinates for Gorilla Haven, for whatever reason.

Gorilla Haven is situated on Parris Mountain and consists of approximately 329 acres. The entire perimeter has an electrified fence with a security gate. I was soon to learn that security is the number one factor here. Steuart has designed the facility so that on the unlikely chance that a gorilla escapes, he cannot get off the property. Also, if anyone thinks about coming in, especially along the back side, they will think twice when confronted with a warning about several thousand volts on the fence.

The entrance winds down a path leading to the Cabin, past a side trail leading to the gatehouse, administration building and Kathy's cottage, and the main double gate into the gorilla facility itself. I was enchanted by the gorilla statue that greeted me, then the huge pond fenced in as a run for many of the 13 dogs that Jane and Steuart have rescued, along with 23 cats at last count. Walnut, a cute dachschund cross had just arrived a few days before. Once he has had his operation, I expect he'll be known as Wally! Pip, a Jack Russell is another of their rescues.

Ripley with some of the Dewar Dogs
including Pip
How can I begin to describe the beauty of this location? It is completely private. The trees were just coming into colour; the cabin that Jane and Steuart live in is the original structure and is replete, floor to ceiling with gorilla photos, paintings, statues, books, etc. etc. Jane is a self-confessed gorilla "nut", and this is of course how I first met her way back in the early 90's, so far as I can remember. She and Steuart graciously welcomed me and invited me to stay in the gatehouse -- a three-bedroom, two living room, 2 bath house. The master bedroom has a round bathtub and the kitchen is large -- and there is satellite TV! What luxury after living in my RV (not that I don't love it, but it is nice to have space too).

Gorilla statue &
gatehouse where
I stayed

First on the agenda was a visit to Joe and Oliver, the two resident gorillas. We took Ripley along which may not have been the best idea. But it was a novelty for the two silverbacks, who are housed separately. Joe is quite old (44) and a bit crotchety but in excellent shape for his age. Oliver is 19 (he had a birthday earlier this month) and the son of Barney, one of the gorillas for whom I cared at Toronto Zoo. Barney died in 1989 at Kansas City Zoo so I never saw him again after I took him down to the Bronx Zoo on a breeding loan. It was therefore really great to see his offspring who looks remarkably like his dad. Same long lean body and arms, same postures and facial expression, especially the eyes. Unfortunately, Oliver is deaf.

Oliver (isn't
he handsome?)

I have never seen a gorilla facility better than what has been done at Gorilla Haven. The facility is not open to the public and when the design was being created, it was with the gorillas in mind, not visitors. Their indoor cages are large, the doors work very well, the floors drain properly (you'd be surprised how many zoo facilities don't!). These cages lead to outdoor cages that are sheltered from the elements, and these in turn lead to huge outdoor grassy, treed yards, with a view over to the next mountains.

Jane introduced me to their two keepers, Pete Halliday the lead keeper who worked for years at Howlett's Zoo in England (that's the one owned by the late John Aspinall that you might have seen on TV because he had a policy of going into the cage and playing with the gorillas). Kelly Maneyapanda comes from Buffalo Zoo where she worked with gorillas for many years. Between the two of them, it would be difficult to find anyone else with the same expertise.

Ripley was not too sure about meeting a gorilla, and Joe wasn't too happy about the encounter either. I was sure to keep her well out of harm's way while visiting both facilities.

Joe in his habitat

After this quick visit, Jane and I headed off to the nearby town of Blue Ridge, her to pick up something she had ordered, and me to get a few groceries. We stopped for lunch at a great bistro type restaurant where I had a most unusual sandwich -- chicken with apple slices.

Then back to Gorilla Haven and an early night as I settled into the gatehouse. Actually, it turned out not to be so early for me as I took advantage of satellite TV to watch Meerkat Manor and then some home improvement shows. I find the latter to be quite addicting!

October 19, 2007

Ripley will spend the day with a few other compatible dogs (including Pip the Jack Russell) in a large fenced-in yard, and Steuart will check on her during the day.

Jane and I headed down to Atlanta this morning (it's a two-hour drive from Gorilla Haven) to pick up Leo Hulsker, lead keeper from Apenheuil Zoo in Holland. A lot of people come to visit Gorilla Haven and Jane knows just about everybody who is connected with gorillas, both wild and zoo populations. It had originally been planned that Charles Horton, Curator of Primates at Zoo Atlanta would pick him up and take him to the zoo where we would catch up with them. But for some reason, Charles and Leo did not connect, so we diverted to the airport where Leo was waiting. I have never met him, but what a funny guy he is! He's always coming up with some witty comment, and of course he is very knowledgeable about gorillas as well as orangutans. In fact, he has been to Indonesia many times to study the orangutans there. We had much in common to talk about in that regard, as I too have been to Indonesia twice.

Jane very kindly contacted Steuart to get an update on Ripley, who apparently is enjoying herself with the other dogs.

By now you will realize that I have picked up where I left the zoo world in 1995. It truly was a bittersweet thing for me to become immersed again in this world. I am no longer a participant but an observer.

I felt this even more so as we toured the gorilla and orangutan areas of Zoo Atlanta with Charles Horton, whom I knew previously. He took the time to spend several hours with us as we met each of the groups in turn in their outdoor facilities, and then proceeded to go behind into the keeper areas. We were accompanied by a newspaper reporter, Scott Freeman who writes for a magazine called Creative Loafing. The magazine sounds intriguing, and Gorilla Haven will be their next cover story.

Scott, Marilyn, Charles & Leo
in the back of Zoo Atlanta's
Gorilla facility

Zoo Atlanta did a complete renovation of their ape facilities about fifteen years ago or so, and with the guidance of Dr. Terry Maple, turned them into a wonderful habitat for their 23 gorillas. Yes, that's right -- 23, many of whom were born there. There are four exhibit yards and one off-exhibit yard so that they can divide the groups up according to compatibility. They also have two bachelor groups -- something that is needed because of the excess males in the zoo population. The famous Willie B lived out his life in the new habitat and even sired babies before his death. As a tribute to him, his ashes are inside a bronze statue of him.

Willie B statue

Twins with their
Mom in one of the
gorilla habitats at
Zoo Atlanta

Zoo Atlanta

Another well-known gorilla also now lives at Zoo Atlanta. Ivan was a feature of a department store and lived in a dreadful dungeon-like hole for much of his early life. What a wonderful change for him to be with other gorillas in a large natural enclosure! Charles mentioned that he and his wife Cindy (who managed Stone Mountain Zoo nearby) were married on the keeper roof with Ivan looking on from his habitat below.

The orangutans also have natural-looking yards with high climbing apparatuses and live in groups, despite the so-called solitary nature of these huge apes in the wild. This is a dispute that has been going on forever, and from my own observations in Indonesia I would say that adult males do like to roam about looking for mating opportunities, but females, babies and sub-adults all share the same ranges.

Although we did spend the majority of our time in the ape area, I did stop to see the two meerkat exhibits that have recently been opened. They are enchanting creatures, as are the small-clawed otters and Zoo Atlanta has a huge number.

We moved on to have dinner at a restaurant suggested by Scott Freeman, who didn't seem to want to leave us. I think he was quite overwhelmed by meeting the gorillas up close and wanted to be around these gorilla nuts as long as he could. Six Feet Under is across the road from a famous cemetery (the grave of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, is ther), but features some good seafood. I had a tasty shrimp dish.

We said goodbye to Scott who had confessed that he had to go to dinner now! I don't know how he's going to manage two meals, but that was an indication of his reluctance to part. He and a photographer will be coming out to Gorilla Haven next Tuesday to take photos, so he'll get another gorilla "fix" then.

Back to Gorilla Haven where we chatted for awhile. Jane showed us videos of TV coverage of the protests by the locals when she and Steuart first wanted to build Gorilla Haven. The neighbours didn't like the idea of having gorillas in north Georgia, but they really couldn't give one legitimate reason for their protest. I give Jane and Steuart a lot of credit for persevering to make their dream come true.

Jane Dewar hiding between
Leo Hulsker (Apenheuil
Zoo) & Pete Halliday
(Gorilla Haven Lead

Jane told me that she doesn't like to see photos of herself, so there is only this one shot. She deserves a whole page to herself!

Benny the cat (he reminds me so much of my late Henry) joined us in bed. Ripley was not happy and grumbled off and on during the night. Benny is a grey and white tabby with a huge personality.

October 20, 2007

Leo & Marilyn
in Joe's Holding Area

Today Leo and I got the grand tour of Gorilla Haven with Steuart, who explained in detail all the technical aspects of building the facility. To give you an example of his genius, he told us that he didn't know anything about surveying, so he taught himself! He invented the software for newspaper editing, and most recently, a hand-held computer that does everything you could possibly imagine, and it is his expertise that has generated the funding for Gorilla Haven. He is an amazing person!

View of Gorilla Habitats

We were shown how the doors were installed with safety features; how the buildings were designed (the next phase is under construction -- a group holding facility); what thought went into the ventilation system, the lighting system, the plumbing, the security features everywhere, etc. etc. It was a very thorough tour.

Steuart Dewar

Leo & Marilyn in
Upper Viewing Area

Steuart also makes a mean margarita! Leo regaled us with jokes and funny stores during supper - a wonderful Mexican salad (and I must get the recipe from Jane). A very simple but delicious meal.

Then Steuart started loading up his enormous astronomy equipment and headed off to a nearby mountain to view the moon, while Leo, Jane and I talked "apes". It's a long time since I've done that!

Ripley wanted dinner too!

October 21, 2007

Charles and Cindy Horton are arriving today, so I moved from the gatehouse (which had been promised to them) to Kathy's cottage -- especially built for a dear friend of Jane's who has ALS and who currently lives in Florida but who may move up here. It has wide doors and other facilities to accommodate a wheelchair. It doesn't have satellilte TV and the kitchen is a lot smaller, but it is still very comfortable. Jane and Steuart have allowed me to extend my stay and I am very grateful for the opportunity to stay put for awhile, instead of unhooking and driving my rig on to the next destination day after day. It has become quite wearying and I have to admit that I am looking forward to staying in one spot for six weeks when I arrive in New Mexico in mid-December. I have booked space at The Ranch near Deming, New Mexico -- a campground that is owned by Loners on Wheels, of which I am a member.

Jane took Leo and me up to the facility to spend time with Joe and Oliver before Leo's departure later today. We all took lots of photos of the two boys.

After saying goodbye to Leo, I took myself off to Kathy's cottage, did some laundry and unpacked cartons containing chairs and tables in preparation for an enrichment conference that will be held there in November. Ripley seems to be really enjoying her stay here.

Charles and Cindy arrived around 3:00 p.m. Poor Jane. They were expected at 10:00 a.m. and she more or less gave up her day in anticipation of their arrival. I showed them to the gatehouse and let them get settled. They came by later and invited me to go out to dinner with them. We went to Monte Alban (a Mexican restaurant), and I had fajitas, saving half for lunch tomorrow.

September 22, 2007

Through Jane, I had made contact with an old friend. Mike and Erika Seres once worked at Toronto Zoo before moving on to several other places, both here and in Europe. They are now divorced, but Erika has qualified as a labour and delivery nurse and lives near Atlanta.

Rip is spending her day in a fenced-in yard with Pip, Walnut and one other dog.

I had wanted to go back to Zoo Atlanta anyway, to see the rest of the animals, and Jane very kindly loaned me her Dodge Durango 4 x 4 to make the trip down. It rained off and on all the way down to Atlanta, sometimes with a deluge -- something that was badly needed because of the prolonged drought here.

I spent three hours touring around the zoo and managed to see the baby panda (one of very few born in zoos), plus the Treehouse that houses two species of lemurs as well as several bird species and hyrax. Next door are the only breeding groups of drills in North America. I also enjoyed seeing the Komodo dragon, and of course I re-visited the gorillas, orangutans, otters and meerkats and warthogs. The press was there for a birthday party for orangutan Dumondi, who was one year old.

Erika gave me directions to get to Bahama Breeze, a great restaurant chain which I imagine is really hopping on the weekends. She looks remarkably well and seems to be enjoying her life. She is strongly into salsa dancing and her group performs at different functions. We had a nice long conversation catching up on our lives before hugging goodbye, with promises to keep in touch via email.

I really am going to have to stop relying on Maude to take me around the roads in remote areas. She took me back home via a circuitous mountainous route, in the pouring rain, and as it got darker and darker, I was cursing myself for taking the GPS along. However, I did not think to bring a map of Georgia, so was forced to follow her long, lengthy route. I did finally manage to get back with Jane's car intact!

October 23, 2007

I am still at Gorilla Haven. Jane and Steuart have been very gracious in allowing me to stay, and it is truly tranquil here. However, I do not want to abuse their hospitality and have decided to leave on Friday.

Today it is raining off and on -- Jane showed me videos of Sekani (one of the babies born at Toronto while I was caring for them) who now lives at Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas, and who has had her first baby by dad Fossey. The video showed giant Fossey playing gently with Sekani, while she held on to little Mosi. It was very sweet and I hope to make a side trip to visit them and their keeper Ann Rademacher, whom I have met in the past.

Ripley watching Joe on Video

I also saw a video of Amanda (one of the original Toronto Zoo gorillas) with her day-old baby out in Seattle. It is so gratifying to see these females caring for their babies without any difficulty, and I think that I can take some credit for this. In the old days, babies were generally removed from their mothers and hand-reared for fear that they might be killed by their fathers or other gorillas. This is so unnatural, and as a keeper, I pushed for leaving the babies with their mothers in the group (unless the mother had no milk which did happen with Josephine and her babies). The babies grew up in a group and watched the other females give birth and rear their young so that in turn when they gave birth at another zoo, they knew exactly what to do. This is the case with Sekani.

Now that Charles and Cindy have returned home, I moved back into the gatehouse, after cleaning up Kathy's cottage. I got my hockey fix by watching the Penguins vs Rangers game.

October 24, 2007

Jane allowed me to spend several hours in the gorilla facility with Joe and Oliver, and that was a very special treat. Pete Halliday met me at the gate and took me up, where we talked about gorillas and life in general for some time, while he fed the boys their lunch. Then he left me with Oliver to commune with him. He is deaf, so regular gorilla grunts don't work. I tried my best to communicate with him and he put on some lovely displays for me, then had a little snooze. Quite a compliment that he felt relaxed enough to do that with me there!

Tonight I worked on transferring and labelling all the photos that I have taken in the past few weeks. It takes quite a bit of time to do this, plus re-size the photos for transfer to this blog.

Supper was a Hormel roast beef dinner -- really very good and I added mashed potatoes.

Tomorrow will be my last day here.

October 25, 2007

Jane is off to the doctor's this morning and Steuart is dealing with a problem in their water line. A first aid course for all staff here began at 10:00 a.m. and is continuing all day, so I am basically staying out of the way using Jane's computer so that I can write this blog.

Jane has invited me for supper tonight, but I am going to suggest that I get a take-out and bring it back. The problem with having a facility like this is that they both can't be off the premises at the same time so I can't take them out for dinner. Jane has told me that I can repay their hospitality by giving them updated news from the various zoos, etc. that I will be visiting on my journey.
As it turned out, Steuart prepared a tasty pasta primavera, and we celebrated Bwindi dog's belated birthday with an expensive champagne that went down quite easily. We ate in the sunroom overlooking the back deck of their cabin/museum and watched the stars come out, in between gusts of clouds. Steuart offered to set up his smaller telescope so that I could get a chance to see Jupiter and four of its moons before the clouds rolled in altogether and covered the sky.
October 26, 2007
Despite her hectic schedule, Jane took me up to the facility so that I could say goodbye to Joe and Oliver, and also to Kelly who has returned from her days off.
I am sad to be leaving and want to thank Jane and Steuart for putting up with me for a week, instead of the day or two that I had originally planned. It has been a wonderfully relaxing time for me and a time of renewal. I had deliberately cut myself off from information about gorillas and zoos since leaving Toronto Zoo in 1995 because it was very painful for me to hear news and not be a part of it anymore. It still is difficult; I no longer have the very privileged contact that I had with wild animals while working at Toronto.
I can only hope that the zoo community, and especially the Species Survival Plan committee for gorillas, will come to appreciate that Gorilla Haven is a very viable option for housing "difficult" gorillas. Joe is very old and seems happy to be on his own. Oliver is deaf and therefore there is reluctance to use him in the breeding programs. However, he is also a very lonely gorilla and needs to be with others rather than two goats. Gorilla Haven surpasses the standards of many zoos and deserves to be an integral part of the overall planning for gorillas in North America.


Laura said...

It's encouraging to know I share the planet with such dedicated and knowledgeable people. Thank you Marilyn bringing them to all who read your blog.

garyandcathy said...

Marilyn, Love the blog, you must be having a wonderful time visiting friends and the animals you love.
The pictures are fabulous, Ripley looks great, what a life for that girl.
Don't forget to visit when you are back in Ontario.


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