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A Special Gorilla

The ABQ BioPark Zoo’s “little orphan” gorilla has come full circle as she enters her senior years.

08/31/2016 - If you stroll past the gorilla habitat at the ABQ BioPark Zoo, don’t be surprised if one of these great apes waves or blows kisses at you.

“Huerfanita’s definitely a people gorilla,” said Mary Thompson, ABQ BioPark Senior Primate Keeper. “She enjoys seeing people and getting attention from people.”

Born at the BioPark in 1973, Huerfanita was fostered by humans after becoming an orphan—that’s how she got her name (Huerfanita is “little orphan” in Spanish). She spent 28 years at the Bronx Zoo, where she gave birth to eight gorillas and fostered another eight. Now as a senior, you could say she’s come full circle—she made her homecoming to the BioPark with her last foster gorilla, Jack, in 2006.

After her birth, Huerfanita’s mother didn’t quite know how to handle a baby gorilla. Staff recovered Huerfanita from the habitat and took her to Presbyterian Hospital, where she was placed in an incubator. At the time she weighed just four pounds, four ounces. Hundreds of visitors came to the hospital to view the young ape through a glass window. At 10 days old, she moved in with the Hodgin family, who provided her with a nursery bed, pacifier, bottle and a lot of attention. One more foster home and two years later, she was able to return to the zoo.

In 1978 she headed to the Bronx Zoo and gave birth to her first offspring, Jamie, in 1985. Over the years, she not only welcomed her own babies, but she took in a number of gorilla orphans who were rejected by their mothers, just as she was.

Marcus the silverback. Photo: Jamie Ohrt.
Huerfanita with Mrs. Hodgin in 1973. Although humans raised orphaned gorillas at that time, zoos now prefer using surrogate gorilla mothers. Photo: ABQ Tribune staff.

According to staff, Huerfanita was likely chosen as a surrogate because of her good temperament and natural maternal instincts.

Nowadays, Huerfanita is considered a senior animal and although she lives with three young males and Tulivu, the youngest female gorilla at the BioPark, she gets a little special treatment.

At night she has a space to herself—the gorilla play room, bedroom and adjoining tunnel give her privacy, space and variety—and in summer months she gets to come in early and enjoy her space while the other gorillas hang out in the yard overnight. Thompson said Huerfanita loves to spend time in the tunnel, sometimes even sleeping there.

Although she’s adapted well to the gorilla life, she holds on to a few remnants of her orphan past like blowing kisses and clapping her hands.

In fact, when zookeepers feed her through the mesh, she sometimes will tap her fingers in anticipation.

“She gets really excited to get her special treats,” said Thompson. “She may be a little impatient sometimes.” (Her favorite treats are onions, sweet potatoes, peanuts and fruit.)

Thompson has been assigned to train with Huerfanita for about seven years and said this gorilla has left a special mark on the hearts of staff and visitors alike.

“She’s awesome. She’s not only one of the public’s favorites, but she’s also one of our favorites,” said Thompson. “I don’t really know how to describe it, but she’s a special gorilla.”

Story: Tina Deines