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Zookeeper Plays Mom To Baby Gorilla

Barb Jones spends her days crawling through piles of straw with a 15-pound baby gorilla on her back, sometimes climbing up on platforms inside the cage.

It's all part of being a surrogate mother to baby gorillas, but that doesn't mean it's easy work for the 68-year-old Jones, who's been doing it for 26 years.

"Now, I need a little help scaling the ropes," she said. "But I can't not do what they are going to do."

Jones, a primate nursery keeper at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, works to break the cycle of primates born in captivity who never learn how to care for their offspring.

She teaches the young gorillas how to be babies while adult gorillas watch and learn their own roles. The hope is that the babies will grow up to be better caregivers that can look after their own young.

Jones' most recent project was Umande, who came to Columbus from a Colorado Springs zoo where his mother rejected him. Other females at the zoo didn't want him either. Last week, 40-year-old Lulu took over his care after weeks of Jones and other workers tending to him.

Umande was clearly at home with his human mother, even falling asleep in her lap.

"He's like a little heating blanket," Jones said.

Jones, whose experience is in teaching, started her work at the zoo as a volunteer. In her many years of experience, she's never been injured, she said. She's also picked up a few tricks, such as coughing when the babies misbehave, because that's what adult gorillas do.

She points out that she doesn't do everything a gorilla mother would, such as using its teeth to trim the baby's fingernails and toenails.

"We use clippers," she said.

The world's first gorilla born in captivity was Colo, born at the Columbus Zoo in 1956. Back then, baby gorillas were snatched away from their mothers and reared in nurseries. Zookeepers thought they were protecting the babies from adult gorillas.

But zookeepers later learned that gorillas need to learn from one another, said Beth Armstrong, an anthropologist and former gorilla keeper at the Columbus Zoo.

Keepers imitating primate behavior at the zoo has helped decrease the time it takes for an infant gorilla to become part of a pack. The bond between Umande and Lulu took only a matter of weeks.