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First Person: Gorilla Days


Gorillas are the largest of the living primates. They are ground-dwelling herbivores that inhabit the forests of Africa. They are the next closest living relatives to humans after the chimpanzee species.

Jodi Kissinger Carrigan ’01 works with the gorillas in the Primate Department at Zoo Atlanta. She agreed to answer questions for IUP Magazine.

How did you first become interested in gorillas?

Ever since I was a young girl, I have had an interest in primates, mainly from television and reading books. Something about primates just stood out for me that I found fascinating. I was fortunate enough to be able to follow my dreams and work with primates and am now caring for the largest great ape collection in the country at Zoo Atlanta. Zoo Atlanta has the second largest gorilla collection in North America and the largest orangutan collection.

How did your experience at IUP equip you for your job?

As a Biological Anthropology major, I had a special interest in primates. My professors gave me the support and freedom to succeed, for which I will be forever grateful. IUP also gave me the opportunity to get involved in the student exchange program, in which I attended the University of North Texas to further my primate studies. When I returned to IUP, I did an internship at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in the Primate Department, and it was there I realized my true passion and was sure I had chosen the right career path.

Injection training with Taz

Carrigan trains Taz and Zoo Atlanta’s other gorillas to present their shoulders for injections. Even though sedation is unavoidable for some procedures, the goal is to encourage behaviors that make it possible to take temperatures, monitor heart rates, etc., without it.

What is a typical day like for you?

Every day is different for me, and each day is far from typical when working with gorillas. Some of my daily duties include providing care for the zoo’s twenty-two gorillas, which includes cleaning, medicating, observing, feeding, training, and enriching. I train the gorillas to present different body parts for medical procedures, such as voluntary hand injections, having their temperatures taken, allowing me to listen to their breathing and heart rate with a stethoscope, having their teeth brushed, etc. I'm currently starting the process of training the gorillas so we can obtain voluntary blood pressure readings. All training is done without having to sedate the gorillas.

Enrichment is by far my favorite thing to do with the gorillas. It’s always a challenge trying to come up with ideas that are going to keep the gorillas occupied and challenged themselves. Sometimes objects I create last only a few minutes because of the gorillas’ incredible strength. Then I have to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to make whatever it is indestructible to them. It keeps me on my toes, and I'm always trying to come up with the next, best idea.

Where have you gone to work with gorillas?

Prior to joining Zoo Atlanta, I started my career at Miami Metrozoo. All together, I have worked with over thirty species of primates. In 2007 and 2008, I had the opportunity to lead tours and travel to Rwanda to see the Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat and have also given presentations at the Karisoke Research Center on enrichment and management of Zoo Atlanta’s gorilla collection. I hope to have the opportunity to lead another tour to Rwanda in 2010.

Kuchi with twins

Kuchi gave birth to Kali and Kazi at Zoo Atlanta on Halloween night in 2005. The birth of gorilla twins is extremely rare, and these are the only ones in a captive population to be entirely mother reared. Taz is their father.

What challenges do gorillas face in the wild?

Hunting—illegal hunting for the bush meat trade. Live capture for the pet trade is an ongoing problem, as well. In order to capture one live infant, at least two adults are killed: the mother and the silverback who is protecting the mother and infant. Most of the infants captured don’t survive, due to stress and malnourishment. Gorillas reproduce slowly and face many challenges, which means that the future for gorillas isn’t looking very promising.

Habitat loss—deforestation for the use of illegal charcoal, mining and logging

Disease—Diseases such as Ebola, which is being transmitted from humans. Well over five thousand gorillas died from Ebola in 2006 alone.

Armed conflicts and civil war—Gorillas also face threats from civil unrest and war, which often decrease the ability of national park staff members to effectively perform their jobs and, thus, results in illegal activities such as hunting and habitat destruction. In 2007 alone, nine mountian gorillas were killed in the democratic Republic of Congo as a result of the civil unrest in the region.

Ndeze with clinker ball

At a gorilla orphanage in Africa, Ndeze plays with a clinker ball Carrigan brought with her last year.

What can the rest of us do to help them?

Help support the organizations in the forefront of saving the gorillas. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation of gorillas and their habitats in Africa through anti-poaching, regular monitoring, research, education, and local community support. DFGFI continues to promote the vision of Dr. Fossey. [Information is available at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.]

Recycle old cell phones. Areas across the country are working with Eco-Cell to recycle cell phones, help the environment, and raise money for gorilla conservation. For each cell phone received, a donation will be made to DFGFI. For more information about this program and to find a nearby eco cell recycling center, visit Eco-Cell. I believe there are more than fifty zoos that are involved in this program at the current time. Cell phones are partly to blame for the killing of hundreds of gorillas. Coltan is a mineral mined in the gorilla habitat in Africa that is needed to run cell phones and other electronics.

Gorillas will not be safe until we make a conscious decision to make wildlife conservation a priority and part of the equation.

What is your next step?

I recently applied for a year’s position to manage the gorilla orphanage working for DFGFI and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project in Africa. Whether I stay in Atlanta or go to Africa, I’ll continue trying to get people connected to these animals and teaching them about gorilla conservation. And, as I mentioned, I am leading another tour to Rwanda in 2010.

Ndeze with clinker ball

What do you like most about your job?

Because of my career choice, I’ve been able to do things I never thought I would ever get to do. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and influence some famous people through fundraisers or personal tours at the zoo. It was through work that I found my hobby of welding—something that never would have crossed my mind. Welding allows me to build enrichment devices capable of withstanding the gorillas’ massive strength. Traveling was also something I never thought I would get to do. My career has taken me all over the United States, Canada, and other countries, attending conferences, presenting papers, and giving lectures.

I enjoy working with the animals and being surrounded by such great company every day. I look forward to waking up every morning and going into work to be with the gorillas. Not many people can say that they like going to work every day. I’m responsible for these amazing animals, and my quality of care is their quality of life, which always keeps me motivated.