As Fine A Gorilla Keeper As I Know Nurtures Her Newest Charge

As fine a gorilla keeper as I know is Violet Sunde, a sensitive woman who is senior among Woodland Park Zoo's great ape handlers. Violet can positively puddle up when she talks about these magnificent simians.

She almost did as we watched Seattle's newest baby gorilla in the nursery of the zoo's animal-health hospital. Through the thick glass you could see Nadiri, born last February.

"I've got to go in there!" she burst out. In minutes Violet was fondling and cradling Nadiri, feeding the tiny gorilla her bottle of human baby formula. Violet returned in a little while, half-apologetic, for being so abrupt.

"I feel like a grandmother," she explained. "I've raised three generations of them. It's like family."

There was high drama Feb. 12 when Jumoke, the baby's 10-year-old mother, went through a terrible 40-hour labor. Jumoke was under anesthetic when Nadiri was born.

Human assistance was almost heroic. Present were two doctors from Seattle's Swedish Medical Center, Dr. Robin Cole, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and Dr. Charles French, a specialist in newborn infants.

"They were wonderful," Violet said. "They still call regularly to see how Nadiri is doing."

Two weeks after Nadiri was born, her father, Congo, age 37, passed away. Congo's death was hard on his human keepers, and the rest of the zoo's six gorillas were despondent.

Jumoke would have nothing to do with her baby. "If she had had a normal birth," Violet said, "I'm convinced she would have taken over the baby. I also think Congo's death had something to do with her rejection of her baby."

As things stand now, Nadiri is under 24-hour care and surveillance. She spends her days in the health-care center, her nights in a crib cage in the gorillas' sleeping quarters.

Nadiri is a genuine crowd-pleaser. Her weight is well over 12 pounds; she crawls better than she walks, but her long arms and upper body are now quite strong.

She climbs alarmingly well but there is always someone with her. In all, the zoo has about 1,000 volunteers, 16 assigned to the gorillas. "We have two volunteers a day, sometimes three," Violet said. "We have four professional gorilla keepers and I'm the senior. But we work as a team."

Violet has great hopes that Nina, another female, will become Nadiri's surrogate mother. "Nina is well-qualified for motherhood," Violet said.

When we came out of the health-care center, a line of people, fully one block long, waited to get a glimpse through the window at Nadiri. This on a day when the Seattle Supes had us in roundball thrall, when the Mariners drew a crowd of 47,500.

"A real crowd-pleaser," I said of Nadiri. "A star in the making. We have a major-league zoo."

Then we walked out of the zoo and I reflected on the bad press, the horrible image-distortion gorillas go through. "King Kong" was bad enough, but there are hundreds of examples in which these gentle beasts have been portrayed as evil or dangerous. We even call our gangsters gorillas.

"So ultra-sensitive," Violet said. "They are very emotional, very quiet. They lead a quiet, peaceful life, even in the wild. Central West Africa, where they come from, is sometimes called the Garden of Eden.

"Undisturbed by humans they lead an idyllic, peaceful existence. Plant-gathering and sleeping. Quiet and very social."

She thought a moment. "Sounds like a good life to me," she said.

Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesdays in the Local section of The Times.