Are gorillas really as terrifying as they appear?
Imagine you are one of the first men to explore Africa’s tropical rainforest. Soft, wet ferns brush gently against your cheek. Brightly-colored birds scream and flash through the treetops above. An eerie hooting sound echoes from a clearing just ahead. Crashing through into the sunlight, you stop six feet from a hulking gorilla. The jet-black monster roars “Klah, Klah” and pounds his huge furry chest with muscular arms. The ape’s black, burning eyes glare into yours. The mouth in his broad, flat face draws back, showing gleaming white fangs. A thick odor of manure, burned wood and human sweat fills the air. You stand frozen, expecting death at any moment. Where is that guide with his gun?
Gorillas frightened the explorers and adventurers who saw them in Africa beginning almost 2,000 years ago. These men didn’t take time to study the beast. They either killed the gorilla or dashed away through the jungle at tremendous speeds. And then they returned home with stories or even with the terrifying bodies of slain gorillas. Scientists studying these bodies found similarities between the gorilla and man. Word spread that gorillas, who walked like a man on two feet, would kill any man invading their jungle. Was the gorilla indeed a monster? And just how human was this beast?
Robert L. Garner, a naturalist or scientist who studies animal behavior, decided to go to Africa about 100 years ago and study gorillas. Believing the stories, Dr. Garner built a cage for himself to ward off savage ape attacks. So there he waited in his cage day after day, and no gorillas appeared.
Years went by and true gorilla behavior remained a mystery. Then in 1959 a naturalist named George Shaller walked into the Virunga Mountains to study the mountain gorilla without a gun. He, and later Dian Fossey, lived near gorillas for many years, and what they found would surprise the earlier explorers.
First off, the gorilla is not going to find you tasty because the only “meat” gorillas eat are grubs and snails. Otherwise, they munch on grasses, ferns, vines and tree bark. They eat 20 to 40 pounds of plants a day. And so gorillas spend most of their time chewing, not fighting. Gorillas belch like humans do after a big meal, and they can also belch on cue. When Dian Fossey belched while in a group of gorillas, the gorillas belched back at her.
It turns out that gorillas are, in fact, very gentle. Gorilla groups share food and land with each other and avoid fights. And if gorillas can disappear into the underbrush before being seen by man, they do.
Mother gorillas tenderly care for their babies, who ride on her belly or on her side until they are about a year old. And even after that dad and mom give them a piggyback ride every so often. Mother gorillas grunt like a pig to reassure their children. And Dian Fossey discovered that gorillas love to be tickled. She once saw an old gorilla tickle a baby with a flower like a kindly grandfather.
The large male who is the leader of a group of females and children is a kind and tolerant dad. Gorilla fathers, like any good dad, will attack anyone they feel will hurt their family. But the chest-beating, screaming and charging are signs of excitement designed to ward off intruders. Dian Fossey watched two male gorillas scream and charge at each other for two full days without ever doing battle.
And Ms. Fossey found ways to calm down a chest-thumping, screaming, excited gorilla. Try any or all of these: raise one arm and scratch yourself, fold your arms across your chest, belch, keep your head down, shake your head and make gentle “naoom, naoom” noises. These actions tell the gorilla you’re a nice person and mean no harm.
Experts have now seen that, though gorillas can stand on two legs, their arms are so long that they mostly walk on all fours, resting on the knuckles of their hands. And as for their intelligence, gorilla expert Penny Patterson taught her young gorilla Koko to “talk” in sign language. When the gorilla had learned 500 signs, Koko asked for a real cat. Koko named the cat All Ball and cared for her cat like any mother would. When All Ball was killed by a car, Koko cried a sad hooting sound. Then the ape signed, “Sleep, cat.”
Dian Fossey’s greatest thrill came when a 450-pound gorilla she had named Peanuts touched her outstretched hand with his own. And Peanuts was also impressed, racing off to tell his friends while beating his chest in excitement.
Gorillas have only one real enemy --- man. These gentle, intelligent animals have been captured or killed by guns, spears, dogs and traps. They have been used for trophies or for meat and have been sold to zoos and circuses.
The people living near the gorilla in Africa are very poor and would like to farm the land the apes need to live. Though game parks have been set up in Africa to protect the few remaining gorillas, soon the zoo may be the only place you will see a live gorilla.
But let’s return to you, an early explorer. You don’t know about all these studies. You feel you are facing a bellowing ogre. By standing there frozen, you are unknowingly doing the right thing. The gorilla feels you are calmly meeting his challenge but do not plan to attack, which comforts him. To your amazement, he suddenly closes his mouth, drops to all fours and lumbers off into the jungle. Thankfully, this meeting between gorilla and man has ended peacefully.
Dian Fossey and other naturalists have shown us how valuable a cautious study of potentially dangerous animals can be instead of merely slaughtering them. It is only when mankind conquers its fears of fearsome-appearing animals and approaches them in a reasonable way that the valuable secrets of the animal kingdom will open for us. And we can learn much from gorillas. In fact, if man copied the gentle ways of the gorilla, the world would be a better place to live in.