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Healed 9-month-old gorilla reunites with parents

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Updated: September 24, 2013 6:33AM



Nayembi, Lincoln Park Zoo’s 9-month-old gorilla, stuck out her tongue Thursday, then threw straw up in the air playfully, as any kid might do during playtime.

Before too long, her mother, Rollie, a 250-pound western lowland, scooped her up and placed her gently on her back.

Thursday’s seemingly ordinary public playtime at the zoo’s Regenstein Center for African Apes was something special for the little primate, and for her parents, Rollie and 400-pound Kwan. The family of three was reunited for the first time the day before — six months after Nayembi suffered a severe injury to her face.

Nayembi recuperated for months and was gently reintroduced to other gorillas.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, visitors were allowed into the exhibit to see the family back together. Schoolchildren pointed to Nayembi, one of two baby gorillas at the zoo. Her half-sister, Patty — just a month older — played nearby with her mother, Bana.

Gorillas are the most monitored animals at the zoo, and so, within 20 minutes of Nayembi’s injury — her nose was somehow nearly sliced off — research staff, interns and behavioral experts heard the infant’s screams.

They were already on call — only about 42 percent of infant primates make it to their first birthday in the wild, according to Patty Leahy, curator of primates at the zoo.

“We had an emergency response plan in place, and we went into action,” Leahy said. Zoo staffers “were able to separate mom and get to the infant . . . so our veterinary staff got working right away.”

Leahy said Rollie was distraught the day of the injury: “She was sad, I think. She was vocalizing for her infant.”

After healing from reconstructive surgery, zoo staff placed the infant in an off-exhibit area adjacent to her mother. “All day long and during the night, they could see, smell and they did some touching, so Rollie just maintained a bond with her the whole time,” Leahy said.

Rollie would socialize with her daughter through a mesh separation, vocalizing every time she would see Nayembi. Her father also repeatedly came close to check up on her and also vocalized, she said.

Although gorillas can be breastfed for up to three years, Nayembi was fed formula during her recovery, and her mother is no longer able to produce milk, Instead, Nayembi is trained to walk up to a mesh opening where medical staff feed her formula.

On Thursday, Leahy said staff were amazed to see Nayembi and her parents getting along like there was no separation.

“You always worry when you’re assisting in the care of a gorilla. You’re a human after all,” Leahy said. “But we tried to simulate as best we could being a gorilla, and so when she went back with mom and couldn’t care less about us, we knew we did the right job.”

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

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