‘….an attempt to create a natural environment’.


Telephone Interview between Penny Wilson and Laura Wanless. Head of Gorillas at Howletts.
June 18th 2009-06-18

There are constant Gorilla and child noises in the background.

At one point, Laura is called away by a fellow keeper because one of the gorillas appears to have his head stuck in the bars…
She comes back to the phone…’sorry about that.. He was joking’,
Penny ‘The keeper?’
Laura ‘No the gorilla’.

It was clear from the start that I was talking to a woman who was passionate about her work.
You can hear it in the tone of restrained excitement and I recognised the groping for words to find ways to tell me things that excited her so much that she wanted me to hear what she was saying, Really hear it.

Laura was enthusiastic in explaining to me the processes that were used to design the environments in which their colonies of gorillas lived.
It would seem that they get negative feedback from the public about the look of these enclosures.

‘The public often say that the houses are not aesthetically pleasing. They are used to seeing other spaces for animals where for example, there is a big green field with a small climbing structure and platform on the top. That is not the sort of environment that gorillas live in in nature.’
‘The houses we have here are an attempt to create a natural environment for the gorillas so that they can learn and live their normal behaviours. These are either rescue animals or born within the existing community. Those who are suitable are released into their natural habitat under very controlled and well managed conditions.’

I understand her to mean that the public may want something that is easier of the eye and looks like a pleasant space for the gorilla communities, but this, evolved design, does the same jobs as the natural spaces that the gorillas would be thriving in if they had not been affected by extreme pet-keeping, war or the bush meat trade.

They have created a compensatory environment.

She had her thoughts well planned.

‘Gorillas need an environment in which they can, Nest, Climb, Forage and enjoy their Age Diverse Social Set Up.’

‘Let us start with the Nesting.
‘We have deep straw to replicate the work of leaf mould in the thick jungle habitat. We only clear this out completely once a year. However we add new straw to it regularly. If it is cold, for instance, or wet. For Gorillas, nesting very important. They build a new nest every night, sometimes inside their houses and sometimes outside. They will pull the fresh straw around to the place they want to build. When it is cold they will use the composting straw as under-floor heating and pull the fresh straw over the top of the heated mattress to be dry as well. It is very important that the straw is movable and that they can manipulate it. Sometimes the little ones throw straw at each other. They think its funny.’
Penny ‘They have a sense of humour?’
‘Oh yes. Hey you should get your kids to play with straw too. You can see that they are enjoying it. Sometimes they throw straw at the adults too and the adults will throw it back.’

‘Foraging is important.
‘Gorillas are inclined to be lazy. If we just put their food out for them in easy reach they would eat it and not have incentives to do any of the things that they need to do to learn how to be gorillas
‘So in the wild they would have to be working at searching for food all day. They would be picking through the leaf mould looking for seeds and bugs. And climbing into the canopy to find fruit and leaves to eat. So here we drop food of different sizes through the different gauge mesh roof.
‘The big bits get stuck on the roof and the gorillas have to find ways to puzzle them through the mesh with their fingers or with sticks. They have to climb right up to the roof level of the enclosures to do this. There they will also find fruits lying on the platforms.
‘Back down in the straw layers the little seeds in the food mix have dropped and nestled in and the gorillas have to sort through, almost like finding a needle in a haystack, to discover these bits. Every piece of work that they do adds to their gorilla skills base. The searching for seeds demands good hand eye co-ordination and the ability to stay on task and be slow and patient. When it is cold and rainy we could try throwing sunflower seeds into the straw, but they are lazy and this would not be incentive enough. So we choose something really tasty like Bombay mix or grapes and they find a fresh incentive to go out when they would otherwise have stayed in.’

‘It is important that they have a very rich three dimensional environment. If they had the setting that the public feel is aesthetically pleasing, the flat green field with a single climbing structure and platform, they would lose interest really quickly and do nothing.
‘Again the challenge is an incentive to them. Through the variety of challenges they move around a lot more, build muscle tone and get exercise they learn to balance and find out how their bodies work. ‘
‘We also try to make sure that the environment is varied and has many different textures and handholds. So we use the sides of the enclosure walls which have a scaffolding skeleton for them, we use ropes hanging down or draped like lianders or knotted to grab a difficult hold of. We use fire hoses strung from structure to structure or woven to form robust hammocks and swinging platforms. We have nets and moving items like tyres riveted together in platforms or like swings.
‘There are solid platforms too. The top enclosure is difficult to get to in places to give them more of a challenge, some of the structure is very low and easily accessible so that the little ones can start their climbing. There is a high floor near the top of the enclosure so that they have double floor space and a variety of places to explore and inhabit. They have an upstairs and a downstairs. As I have told you, some of their food is accessible only from the roof because of the fine mesh and variety of sizes of the food, we want them to explore the upper part of the enclosure, like they would explore the tree canopy in their natural setting. ‘
‘Some of the environment we provide for them, just like in their real homes are for rest and some are routes. Routes and rest. The enclosures are never finished. There is always work we want to be doing on them. ‘

‘I don’t think we will ever finish the job of making these places . I suppose that their natural habitat is always changing too.’

Penny; I asked about some of the artefacts I had seen in the enclosures on my visit. ‘There was an outsized skeleton bauble hanging from the roof, do they use that?’
Laura; ‘Oh yes, they climb the outside of it and some, most, can squeeze inside too. It is a toy. It does not replicate anything natural. They explore it.’

I remember a conversation with another keeper who said that this work of creating total home environment for the gorillas had started in the 1950s and that in the early days, they had made mistakes with the design However, as they had studied the needs of the gorillas community more closely and for longer, they had been able to make changes that had improved the quality of their lives. The environments helped them not only survive, but thrive.

I ask about a target I saw on a wall in an enclosure. It had concentric coloured circles… what was the idea of that?
Laura; ‘I have no idea. I will ask Mr Aspinall. It could be an idea of some-ones or it could be one of the things that we have put in to enable the community to have a sense of privacy from the public. We have many areas where there is an illusion of privacy. Not just from people but from each other, On most levels we have created circular structures that are screened off in quarters so the that gorillas can find a quiet place for themselves to take time and be quiet and calm and private. Normally I suppose they would be able to go and sit alone behind a tree or something.’
‘They have shallow splash pools. Only inch deep water. We find that depth is important. They splash in it and wash in it and drink it. They play with it and use it.
‘We have started looking at enrichment times for the gorillas, recently we tried adding food colouring to the water.’
Penny; ‘Do they see colours?’
Laura; ‘Oh yes, but they were not interested in the coloured water. They took one look at it and sort of sniffed and puzzled and went on with their normal stuff.’
Penny; ‘Oh , I know that look. Children do it when you give them some play idea of yours that is really naff. Its like… ‘what are they playing at now… sigh’… What else do you do for ‘enrichment’?
Laura; ‘ Well we have ‘honey pots’ these are containers on the outside of the enclosure mesh walls that we fill with honey or jam or peanut butter. They can smell the goodies inside but they cannot get to them without puzzling away at how to get their fingers into the little holes or finding and using twigs to dip into the pots and pull something out to eat.’
Penny; ‘Oh. I think that your colleague who I spoke to told me about this. He said that they strip the bark from a twig to make it smooth, then they sometimes bite at the ends of the twig to fray them like a brush so that they can pick up more. He said one of the females got really good at making these tools and the males kept stealing them from her. So she would make one good tool and one inferior one. She would use the inferior one first and let them steal it. When they got bored they would give up and go away, and she would go and find the good tool that she had hidden and use it for herself.’
Laura; ‘Maybe that is the same female who got so clever at making tools that she would fashion a stick to grab at the fire hoses outside the enclosures and unreel them and grab the end and pull them and play with them. She could unplug adaptors and plugs too. In fact she got so skilled that she could see a monkey nut dropped by the public on the pavement outside and take a stick and break it so it was jointed at an angle that would allow her to pierce the shell of the nut and spear it and pull it inside the enclosure. They do the same with sticks to get food that is caught on the top of the mesh roof and pull it in to eat it.
‘We also have a tombola type barrel that they have to turn to get the food to fall out of the holes.
‘We are trying experiments with different scents in the fresh straw we put in. It could be lavender or spices. They seem to enjoy exploring the fresh scents.
‘We give them cardboard boxes to play with. They rip and tear the cardboard and eat it. They seem to enjoy the task of ripping these to bits.’

Age diverse social groups.
‘You can have the best environment in the world. But if there is only one gorilla in there it will fail to thrive. They enjoy and need a diverse mixture of ages. They learn from each other.’
I recall the keeper I spoke to on my visit talking about how the first gorillas that came into the enclosures years ago had been traumatised by their personal histories. They had been orphaned by bush meat traders, sold as pets, treated cruelly. When they arrived they had adopted the stress induced habit of vomiting and eating their vomit, which gorillas do not do in a natural environment. The public on my visit had observed a gorilla doing this and asked about it and the keeper explained that it had become a learned behaviour, and ingrained itself in the culture of this community.
‘The mothers carry the babies for the first six months or so of their lives. After that they gradually begin to play separately from mum. Some mothers are very over-protective of their young and some are not, some young are more clingy than others. Sometimes the ‘aunts’ will over mother a kid. It all depends on the individuals. Eventually the little one will play at the feet of the mother and mess about with siblings and then will start to learn to climb and do gorillas stuff. ‘

I had been told a story about a gorilla who had not had the chance to climb in its earliest years. They had to play with her and practice climbing and she learned too, though at a much later age than she would normally have done. She fell a lot and had a lot of bruises. But she managed to learn her gorillaness through a delayed living out of the playing that she had missed.

‘The age difference is important. They learn to behave in different ways with different ages while they all live together. The little ones will rough and tumble together and because they are evenly matched they are quite brave. The adults will play with the little ones too. But the play has a different quality. They will take the small ones up and swing them around. They don’t do this in quite the same way as we would swing a child around and throw them. They do it in a way that would dislocate a human child’s arm. It looks very rough to us but it is appropriate and measured to the physicality and resilience of the young in relation to the older gorillas.

‘Yes. And there is the story of Sidonie. She was an orphan who was bought by a guy lived in Paris and decided he wanted a pet gorilla. When she was young she was moved into his flat. She ate her meals at a table and was fed cooked vegetables. Her body has not developed properly. If you look at her hands you can see they are not well formed because she did not do the things with them that they needed to develop properly. As she grew older, she became very destructive of the flat and very energetic – as a gorilla should be. However to manage this behaviour she was fed tranquilizers, vallium. When the guy died, she was bequeathed to Howletts. She came to us addicted to tranquilizers and never having eaten properly or played properly. She had never seen another gorilla. We had to get her off the drugs and get her used to a better diet and give her a chance to learn to climb and play. She is tolerated now by the community, but she has no friends. She manages to hold her own in the group but is ranked lower than a juvenile. She is unpredictable and very mixed up. She was brought up to be a human, but she is a gorilla. Now she is not happy with either identity. She is stuck in the middle. There is one keeper she is obviously very fond of, but we cannot have contact with her. She grumbles and coughs at the same time. ‘Grumbling’ is a deep and happy noise (like purring?) and ‘coughing’ is a warning of irritation.

‘We have learned from her how to improve our care for the babies that we hand rear. We try to be as gorilla-like as possible. We may be feeding them but they spend as much time as possible with the community that they are going to be living with. When we are feeding them we try to become like a gorilla mum. We try to provide a model for them with our poor imitation of gorillaness. We move around through the straw, we climb and forage we use gorilla vocabulary, like beating our chests or the grumbling or coughing. We do not pick them up or hold them like human babies, we pick them up and hold them as we see the gorilla mothers doing. We carry them on our backs or our chests. We do not cradle them. Cradling is not a comfort to a baby gorilla.’

Penny; ‘I was going to ask you. It seems that when you consider the environment that you are constantly creating for the gorillas that you have learned to observe how they thrive or wither in response to that environment. So you know that if the aesthetically minded public had their way and you had the field and the small un-adventurous structure, you would have a community that was lost, had not developed physical, social, emotional or psychological fluency. That community would fail to thrive because you would have neglected to observe their deep rooted environmental needs? The environment that you have made allows the gorillas to BE gorillas.’
Laura; ‘Oh yes.’ ( I was stating the obvious to her.)

Penny; ‘I have question, while I was watching a guy went into the enclosure and sat on a swing and gradually started to play with one of the gorillas…’
Laura; ‘ Was he about five with a pot belly?
Penny laughs; ‘Yes that’s right.’
Laura; ‘I think that would have been Damian Aspinall playing with Ebeki. We do play with the gorillas. We let them approach us. We make it known to them that we are available for playing. We do not just go in and jump all over them. We offer a situation to them to explore and wait for them to take it up. We take our pace and tone from them. If they start some playing we expand on it. If they start to give us unwanted behaviours we deflect it with our body movements or another activity. Like the adult gorillas do. We do not force them to do what we want, we mirror them.
‘It’s not play if it’s pressured,’ Laura said.

We end the conversation with comments about how I recognised her descriptions of playing from years of playworking with children with disabilities who did not use words to communicate…

Laura: ‘That’s right, they do not understand speech. But there is understanding and wisdom. We take their language and body movements and use them. We can try to be as much like a gorilla as possible but we will always be bad imitations. We can beat our chest, but we will always be people. We use their communication we observe them.’

I describe a little of play theory that might offer them a useful language like ‘play cues and flows’ and ‘mirroring’ and ‘compensatory environments.’

We both clearly recognise the similarities in our work.

Laura; ‘Can I come and work with children?’
Penny; ‘Yes, Can I come and work with gorillas?’

It was clear that the environment that this dedicated team had established over the years was based on their close observations and research about the needs of the gorillas as individuals and as a community. By getting this right they can get as near as possible to the natural state of gorilla life and allow the gorillas to experience the things that they would be exposed to in nature.

For me the parallel with the creation of a play space, through observation and research, which simulates as closely as possible the playing of children in nature, is obvious.
There has long been a desire to make play spaces pleasing to the adult eye or the adult intellect, an agenda which has taken precedence over playspaces that do the job that children need them to. These jobs include the chance for kids, without adult instruction, to build dens and fires, to dig and manipulate water and mud or sand, to forage for food, imitate adult behaviours, to play in the dark and create rituals, to be comfortable enough to remain at play for lengthy periods, to roam and explore and discover, to take risks and manipulate the things they find around them as tools for play. They need to explore their own creativity and aesthetics. They need spaces which allow them to choose how they use their bodies physically and intellectually, to mix with the broadest possible age range, to gain confidence in themselves gradually so that they can leave the dependency of the mother child relationship and learn the things that they can do by themselves. They need to acquire for themselves the skills that we need as a species, to survive and be confident and comfortable with the employment of those skills. These skills need to be rehearsed in the developing architecture of the child’s brain so that they are hard wired into the adult one. They need to rough and tumble and make jokes , enjoy communication, show affection, and receive it. They need to play out situations that intrigue, hurt or please them.

They need a playspace which allows their internal world to play in an external world so that they can discover not only who they are, but the things that human beings need to know which make them human.

They do not need to be controlled, but they need to settle comfortably into boundaries of their community, understanding why those boundaries are in place.
They need to have space and time to dip in and out of playing and mingle it with their everyday tasks.
The child needs to play to discover its humanity and if children are divorced from their natural surroundings, then those of us responsible for their welfare need to be ensuring that the opportunities that we provide for them recreate as closely as possible, those natural surroundings.

If we do not do this we must expect them to become psychologically, emotionally and physically imbalanced, like Sidonie.

We cannot try to control or choreograph their playing because ‘it is not play if it is pressured.’

This all amounts to a fairly tough design brief, and one which should not be ignored because as Stuart Lester says
‘The community would fail to thrive if we neglected to observe their deep rooted environmental needs. The environments that we make must allow human children to BE human children.’

Penny Wilson
April 4th 2011

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