A family reunion
Can you imagine being re-united with a brother you haven’t seen for years? Would you recognise him at once or might he have changed beyond all recognition? How will you behave? How will he respond? These questions were running through the mind of the head keeper at Longleat Safari Park on a sunny morning in September. He considered the possibilities: there might be tension, suspicion – even acts of aggression. He had to be prepared for a bad reaction. For the reunion he was planning was not with his own brother, but a reunion of two male gorillas, separated as youngsters, now about to be brought together as adults in the Safari Park’s state-of-the-art gorilla enclosure.
Having been sent to different zoos while the older brother, Kesho, was part of a breeding programme in London, the two great apes had been apart for 3 years. Kesho’s time in London had seen him mature and evolve into an adult – a 220kg silverback, and the dominant leader of his troop. The younger brother, Alf, still only 9, remained a small and playful blackback. The keepers were not sure if the two primates would remember each other or meet as strangers. But they need not have worried!
Placed together, the mutual recognition was instantly clear. Temporarily separated by a cage, the two gorillas touched hands through the bars before launching into a display of brotherly recognition that surprised even the keepers. The two big apes hugged, shook hands and even seemed to laugh with delight, as they re-established their old bond almost instantly. The heart-warming display of sibling attachment was videoed and beamed around the world on news channels and internet sites.
As they spent time together, it was soon as if they had never been apart, with the adult, Kesho, tolerating and even taking part in Alf’s games with a playful demeanour rarely seen in fully mature silverbacks. Had the apes been strangers, their reaction would have been one of confrontation: the silverback wary and ready to dominate the intruding younger male. However, gorillas are very social animals with strong family bonds. Research shows that they are able to recognise each other by the shape of their noses, a feature which does not alter in the transition to adulthood.