Toledo Zoo adds female gorilla Sufi from Houston

Sufi is new mate for silverback

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    Sufi, 15, a female western lowland gorilla on loan to the Toledo Zoo from the Houston Zoo, eating scallions.

    The Blade/Jetta Fraser
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  • Sufi, 15, a female western lowland gorilla on loan to the Toledo Zoo from the Houston Zoo, eating scallions.
    Sufi, 15, a female western lowland gorilla on loan to the Toledo Zoo from the Houston Zoo, eating scallions.

    The Toledo Zoo’s western lowland gorilla troop has grown by one.

    A new adult female, 15-year-old Sufi Bettine, has been integrated with the zoo’s three other females and silverback male. She arrived on a breeding loan from the Houston Zoo in May.

    “She’s very spunky,” Michael Frushour, associate curator of mammals, said. “She’s got a lot of heart.”

    Introducing a new member to the group must be done extremely carefully. Gorillas establish social hierarchies, so fights and serious injuries are common as a troop adjusts to new dynamics.

    VIDEO: Female gorilla from Houston becomes new addition at Toledo Zoo

    “They can get really violent, so we always prepare for the worst,” Mr. Frushour said.

    The zoo closed the gorilla exhibit or restricted access to reduce stress during Sufi’s introduction. After quarantine, she was first introduced to the three other females indoors.

    “If we do introductions inside, it allows us a lot more control,” Mr. Frushour said. “If we see things getting out of hand or somebody picking on her too much, we can shut doors and sort of separate them.”

    After some arguments, Sufi was welcomed into the fold. She’s the smallest of the females but stood her ground when meeting her new troop.

    “She held her own, which could be a bad thing,” Mr. Frushour said. “I was a little worried they would take it out on her a little more and be a little rougher on her.”

    Getting the other females’ approval first was necessary before meeting  the silverback, 29-year-old Kwisha. Males are twice the size of females, and with squabbles common among even well-established troops, Sufi needed the backup.

    “It’s in their self-interest as well,” gorilla keeper Mike Payne said. “They want all the others to back them up if they get into a fight with Kwisha.”

    Staff expected Sufi to run from Kwisha during their first meeting, but the exact opposite happened.

    “She went right up to him and he was actually backing away from her initially,” Mr. Frushour said. “He roughed her up a bit, but not bad.”

    As hoped, the other three females intervened and prevented Kwisha from seriously harming Sufi. She has sustained some cuts, bruises, and hair loss throughout the introduction process, but her injuries have been minor. The troop is now living together both on and off exhibit.

    “I couldn’t be happier with how it went,” Mr. Frushour said.

    Sufi came to Toledo on a breeding recommendation from the species survival plan, a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that helps maintain genetic diversity among accredited institutions. She is a new mate for Kwisha.

    The last gorilla baby born in Toledo, a female named Dara, arrived in 2003. The zoo has had standing breeding recommendations with Kwisha and the three other females, but they haven’t bred for years. Mr. Frushour said it’s possible Kwisha or the females lost interest in each other.

    “They’re like people,” Mr. Frushour said. “He might not have liked [Sufi] for whatever reason.”

    Fortunately, the silverback has taken a shine to the new girl in town.

    “Kwisha and Sufi seem to be getting along really well,” Mr. Payne said. “They play now and wrestle with each other a little bit.”

    Staff has already seen some mating behavior between the two, he added, which happened sooner than anyone expected.

    The zoo tests the female gorillas’ urine each month for possible pregnancy. Should Sufi become pregnant, it would be her first offspring and Kwisha’s fourth.

    “We’re waiting with bated breath,” Mr. Frushour said.

    An agreement between the Toledo Zoo and the Houston Zoo stipulates Toledo will own odd-numbered babies between Sufi and Kwisha, while Houston will own even-numbered infants.

    Jeff Sailer, executive director, said Sufi’s successful integragion is “a real testament to the staff.”

    “These are very social creatures and it’s not easy,” he said.

    The zoo will eventually send one of its other three females to another facility to find a new mate when a new breeding recommendation is made, Mr. Sailer said.

    Western lowland gorillas, native to the heavy rainforests of west central Africa, are listed as critically endangered and declining on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource’s Red List for Threatened Species. Their status is attributed to habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, and human encroachment.

    Contact Alexandra Mester amester@theblade.com419-724-6066 or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.