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Florida Guide > Animal Kingdom

Gorillas in the Sun

Animal Kingdom, one of the four Disney theme parks in Orlando, Florida, is one of my favourite destinations. It is the largest Disney theme park in the world, covering over 500 acres, and it was the first Disney park to be themed around conservation.

Whenever we visit this amazing park we always make sure we walk the wonderful Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, where we make a beeline for the Silverback gorillas. These incredible creatures always enchant us – especially when they appear to regard us, the onlookers, with utter disdain.

There is a fantastic view of the gorillas from the swaying suspension bridge, where you might get a glimpse of Gino, a 12 year old male, who fathered baby Lilly. Named in honour of Alecia Lilly, Ph. D, who was the senior scientist and vice president of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, Lilly was born to Kashata, a first time mothe, in February, 2010. Baby Lilly has caused her keepers some concern, due to her lack of growth, and she was very carefully monitored. Gorilla babies are carried by their mothers for a gestational period of nine months, and when born are just 3 or 4 lbs in weight. They are all the more precious because a female Western Lowland Gorilla does not reproduce until they are nine or ten years old, and usually only produce one healthy baby every five years.

However, baby Lilly did not grow normally. Soon after her birth her keepers noticed that Lilly wasn’t able to cling onto her mother as well as most newborn gorillas. In normal circumstances baby gorillas hate to let go of their mothers. They cling on day and night. She also remained smaller than other gorillas of her age, and she had developmental delays. She did not reach typical gorilla baby milestones such as rolling over, grasping or crawling until much later than expected. Even Lilly’s mother seemed to realise that something was not right, and she appeared to take extra care when nursing her. Mother gorillas carry their babies on their backs for about 3 to 4 years after they are born.

Despite a barrage of tests, including those to rule out vitamin deficiencies, liver abnormalities and thyroid disorders, vets have not been able to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with Lilly. Vets worked with medical and paediatric experts but the exact cause of Lilly’s condition is still a mystery. So all they can do is give Lilly therapy sessions, similar to those a human baby would receive if it was developmentally delayed.

Each day, Lilly’s keepers encourage her in what appear to be forms of play, but which are really structured occupational therapy. In an effort to strengthen her muscles and stimulate her curiosity, she is encouraged to climb, grasp objects, and roll over. Her mother, Kashata, keeps close to her youngster during these sessions. She has started to put on weight, and seems more active within her family group. Whilst Lilly’s condition remains a mystery, at least vets and her keepers have learned valuable lessons which may benefit other wildlife and conservation efforts. New protocols in animal care have been pioneered, and Lilly continues to make good progress.

Not only that, but those who visit Animal Kingdom continue to be enthralled by her antics as she interacts with her mother and father in the wonderful gorilla habitat on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. By 18 months, Lilly, although smaller than usual, was continuing to develop, and as her mother is quite small for a gorilla, she may have inherited her size.
Rita Fraser

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Page added on: 11 January 2013
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