The National Zoo is on birth watch, with zookeepers anticipating the arrival of their first baby gorilla in nine years. It could happen at any minute.
Calaya the gorilla is very pregnant, according to zookeeper Melba Brown. Brown and others are watching Calaya closely, tracking her appetite, behavior and eyes.
“I'm familiar with labor and I'm waiting for that [look],” Brown said with a laugh.
Calaya was brought to D.C. from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in 2015. Soon after arriving in Washington, Brown said it was “love at first sight” with the National Zoo’s silverback male Baraka.
“And then nature took place,” Brown said. “So here we are about eight months later.”
Zookeepers actually used a human pregnancy test to confirm she was expecting.
“People think about gorillas as this other worldly thing. We're actually pretty close,” she said.
A series of ultrasounds showed a growing, healthy baby.
Because this is Calaya's first pregnancy – it would also be Baraka’s first surviving offspring – Brown has been doing what she calls “maternal training” with Calaya, showing her photos of gorillas caring for their infants.
She has also hidden a small audio device inside a stuffed gorilla – the same kind available for purchase in zoo gift shops - with audio of gorilla vocalizations. Through a gate in the back of the enclosure, Brown uses the stuffed animal to teach Calaya how to kiss, touch and even nurse her baby.
So far, Calaya has only shown signs that she will be a good, attentive mother, Brown said.
Unlike other species, gorillas live in family groups. And Brown said the baby will remain in the exhibit with Baraka and others.
“Because what we want is for this gorilla to stay a gorilla,” she said.
Zookeepers don't plan to intervene unless there is an urgent need. So the live birth could play out in front of some shocked zoo visitors during one of its busiest weeks - spring break and just before Easter.
“Oh that would be amazing,” zoo visitor Hazara Kawah said. “Yeah, my kids would love it.”
Gorillas are a critically endangered species. In captivity, there are only about 350 living in zoos across North America.
Brown said maintaining that captive population is important to future conservation and research.