September 16, 2015

The Zoo announced on the first of this month that one of its beloved western lowland gorillas, Juma, died unexpectedly in his outdoor habitat on August 31. Like many aging male gorillas, both in zoos and in the wild, Juma was affected by a heart condition. The medical management that he received over the four years since his diagnosis had a positive effect on his overall function and quality of life, but the necropsy suggested his heart condition was the likely cause of death. As a baby born at the Zoo in 1988, Juma immediately won the hearts of his keepers, visitors and gorilla family. As he grew, he became the gentle, loving leader of a bachelor group. Many younger gorillas learned to grow up under him and his pleasant, calm demeanor. He showed compassion for his keepers. He teased his visitors. An outpouring of love from broken hearts all over the country was expressed on social media upon the news of his expired heart. And now, two weeks after his death, Juma's caretakers and lifelong friends share their stories and favorite memories of a special gorilla they will cherish in their hearts forever.

"How very lucky I was to be a very small part of Juma's life when he was young. We called him Shemp when he was being hand-raised as he reminded us of Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges—goofy and sometimes a bit of a devil. I was fortunate again to work with him in 2002 when he was housed in quarantine while the Jungle of the Apes was under renovation. This time he was a magnificent adult, and I found a newfound sense of respect for great apes. But Juma still had a bit of a devil in him. I was convinced that he sat in his enclosures overnight and thought of ways to annoy (or enrich) me the following day. He literally would take doors off their tracks, break cables to the shifts doors, crack the mesh by throwing his entire body against it. But there was a softer side to him. In the mornings we would sit shoulder-to-shoulder against the mesh, and he would gingerly take pieces of food from me with his thumb and index finger. What a truly wonderful creature." —Carol Fieseler, Quarantine Manager

"One of my favorite stories involved the introduction of Juma, Mshindi and Nne to our silverback Fred. Little “innocent” Juma was the one who made the initial contact with Fred, and it became one of the most heart-warming moments I’ve been a part of in my career. I don’t think there was a dry eye among the staff." —Joe Knobbe, Zoological Manager of Primates

"Ditto on the same introduction of adult male Fred to the three youngsters, Juma, Nne and Mshindi. My sentiments would be the same. There was so much joy on our faces as Fred held out his hand wiggling his fingers to entice Juma over to play. Then Fred hanging upside down on a rope with all four limbs on the rope and the three toddlers approaching him, moving as one holding on to each other for security. It was difficult to keep the video camera steady there was so much emotion among the staff. It was one of the most special moments of my time here at the Zoo." —Frank Fischer, Bird Keeper (involved in raising Juma)

"A few days after the death of one of the gorillas, Muchana, in 2009, I was out observing the gorilla group by a window to their outdoor habitat. I was tearing up thinking about Muchana while watching the others. Juma came near the glass and watched me for a few seconds. In typical Juma fashion, he needed to assess what I was doing and what my purpose was. After a few moments he came to the glass where I was sitting. He sat his bulky bottom on the skinny rockwork so he could get as close to the glass as possible. He then pushed his belly and chest into the glass and did a happy grumble. I interpreted this as a ‘Feel better, Kim. We will be ok.’ This, in turn, made me cry more, but I found it cathartic." —Kim Emerson, JOTA Keeper

"Although I’ve only been here since January, the gorillas hold a special place for me, and Juma was always an amazing individual to be around. He seemed to really enjoy banging on things to make noise, or ‘music’, as  well as to let you know he was there and in charge, and I enjoyed having ‘jam sessions’ with him where we would both bang on things in holding in sequence with one another. If I got distracted or got focused on another animal, he would then bang the mesh at me and run away." —Heidi Hellmuth, Curator of Primates

"I have worked in the Primate Unit for 9 ½ years but had really only spent about one day working with Juma before I took the job as the new Zoological Manager in Jungle of the Apes, working full time with Juma for only 10 short days. It was decided to start my building training on the gorilla routine, and I could tell right away that Juma was not sure about the new keeper. One morning, after he had access to the outdoor habitat overnight, he did not want to see me or shift inside for me. He spent most of the morning trying to stay out of my line of sight no matter where I went to look for him. After he finally shifted in for one of the other keepers, I spotted him at the door, and he immediately turned away from me. He was definitely giving me the cold shoulder that day. I wondered when he was going to really like me and want to interact with me. The next morning, he came over to the mesh when I came in and I felt that maybe all had been forgiven and we were ready to move forward. I never had the opportunity to finish that relationship. I wish I would have had more time with him. The gorilla I got to know was tough when he needed to be and extremely gentle the rest of the time. I wish I could have learned more from him." —Peggy Hoppe, Zoological Manager of Jungle of the Apes

"Shortly after I met Juma 14 years ago, his social group broke down, and he began living alone for the first time in his life. He was unhappy, and made sure everyone knew it. Then, in 2006, the ‘new kids’—Jontu, Muchana, and Little Joe—moved in from the Columbus Zoo to St. Louis to be integrated with Juma into a new bachelor group. From the moment the boys laid eyes on Juma, they were in awe of him and watched his every move. Juma showed equal interest in them, sitting as close as he could get and vocalizing to them.

After several weeks of the boys living in Jungle of the Apes (JOTA) and acclimating to their new home, we decided it was time for them all to meet in person, without a door separating them any longer. We nervously opened the doors, watching intently. As expected, Juma ran out and did a dominance display, chest beating and posturing. After several moments, he started to relax, and within two hours of their initial meeting, Muchana was sitting in Juma's lap. They were tickling and laughing. It was the first time I had seen Juma smile and heard him laugh. After that he was a changed animal. He became a proud leader, strong and respected by his family, firm but fair. He intervened in aggression interactions when he needed to and disciplined when appropriate.

I am truly thankful that I was able to witness Juma maturing into a strong and confident leader. It was amazing to see, and to be a part of. Juma changed me, made me want to be a better person and a better keeper. I loved him dearly. He was a part of my JOTA family, and we feel his loss every day. We can feel the hole he left behind. We will heal, and the other gorillas will work out their dominance and settle in to a new life without him. But we will never forget Juma and the wonderful leader he became." —Dawn Boyer, JOTA Keeper

Category: Our Animals
Tags: gorilla, Juma