Creating Habitats for Captive Gorillas

Expert design of artificial environments for captive gorillas is a difficult process but one that is tremendously important to advance the care of the species. As we learn more about the optimal housing of apes, exhibit designs evolve, and hopefully improve over time. Stay tuned here for information about the latest gorilla exhibits around the SSP.

There is no golden rule regarding the appropriate space requirements for captive gorilla enclosures. Multiple factors affecting the quality of the space likely have significant influences on how gorillas perceive the quantity of space. Gorillas should be housed in large, complex, environmentally enriched enclosures. Outdoor access should be provided to all gorillas whether on exhibit or off exhibit. As newer exhibits are being planned, considerations for multiple habitats or exhibit clusters are recommended. Exhibits with multiple habitats, fully integrated with holding buildings that interconnect each habitat, as well as night quarters, shifts, squeezes, and dayrooms, are necessary to fulfill the concept of a "life-care complex" for an ever-expanding population of gorillas within a singly managed facility.

Visual barriers, access to privacy, climbing apparatus, vegetation, nesting material, and manipulable objects are important in reducing stress, social conflict, and boredom. The size of these multiple habitats may vary depending on available space in the facility.

The space needs to be sufficient to allow for the number, age and sex ratio of the animals assigned to the area with emphasis on the social dynamics of these individual troop members. Keeper staffing levels, and the flexibility of the space to allow for multiple shift doors, feeding chutes, sleeping platforms, etc...also need to be taken into account when deciding if space needs are adequate and suitable to meet the needs of the diversity of the animals in these specific habitats.

The use of live and dead plant materials is generally considered to be the most useful furniture in outdoor enclosures. Vegetation provides shade/cover, display and foraging items, browse/food elements and nesting materials, and allows for visual cover from other animals, thus promoting species-appropriate behavior conducive to the apes' well-being. Various rock outcrops, artificial or natural topographic features, and deadfall trees can be arranged in a manner to encourage natural movements and locomotion patterns within the exhibit and to simulate the daily foraging behaviors of wild gorillas. The placement of exhibit furniture, and the planting of islands and climbers, teamed with barrier and view conditions, can create a dynamic outdoor environment for both apes and visitors.

Although it has been noted that gorillas are primarily terrestrial primates, given the opportunity, they will climb and use trees. Artificial climbers provide for some of the range of locomotion and behaviors displayed in natural trees. Wide, comfortable crotches for perching and well-placed branches for climbing can be designed into the form of artificial trees. However, some of the more subtle qualities, including flexibility, shade, manipulation, destructibility, and food source, may not be provided by artificial trees. Combinations of climbing structures, artificial and dead trees, vines, ropes, and wooden constructions may promote a wider array of behavioral options for expanding vertical and horizontal dimensions to habitats. Gorillas make and use nests on a daily basis in the wild; therefore, this opportunity is an important aspect to provide in a captive environment.

Mixed-Species Exhibitry

Gorillas have been successfully housed with many Old World monkey species, including: black mangabeys (Lophocebus albigena), colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza), DeBrazza's monkeys (Cercopithecus neglectus), diana monkeys (Cercopithecus diana), drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus), greater spot-nosed guenons (Cercopithecus nictitans), lesser spot-nosed guenons (Cercopithecus petaurista), Lowe's guenons (Cercopithecus campbelli lowei), mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx), patas monkeys (Erythrocebus patas), red-tailed guenons (Cercopithecus ascanius ascanius), Roloway monkeys (Cercopithecus diana roloway), Schmidt's guenons (Cercopithecus ascanius schmidti), and Sykes guenons (Cercopithecus albogularis).