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A Rare and Blessed Event

Mandara, a 26-year-old western lowland gorilla, gave birth Saturday at the National Zoo. The sex and name have not yet been announced.

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By Annie Gowen and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 12, 2009

A commotion occurred about noon yesterday at the Great Ape House at the National Zoo. A collective shriek arose. A stroller jam ensued. Cameras clicked and whirred. Mandara, one of the female gorillas, had just appeared, cradling the zoo's latest addition.

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The 26-year-old Mandara had given birth to an infant, sex and name undetermined, about 1:45 p.m. Saturday, without fanfare or any evident histrionics on the other side of a large plate glass window in full view of staff employees and a few lucky onlookers. It was the first birth at the zoo this year and the first gorilla born there since 2001.

"Awwww," the small crowd murmured as Mandara and the baby settled onto a straw-cozy ledge for a midday feeding. Visitors could see only the baby's wizened head and a hand in the crook of its mother's hairy arm.

"I wonder if she feels the way I do after having a baby," said Elizabeth Sadqi of Chevy Chase, a teacher and mother of three. "Kind of 'in a zone.' "

Zoo officials said the birth is significant because the animals, western lowland gorillas, are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. Scientists believe that there are more than 150,000 western lowland gorillas in the wild, said Donald Moore, the zoo's associate director of animal care. But the animals, who live in the tropical forests of West and Central Africa, are threatened by poaching, habitat loss and the deadly Ebola virus.

The zoo's latest arrival came at an auspicious time: The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has dubbed 2009 the "Year of the Gorilla" to spotlight the animals' struggle.

"This baby gorilla helps our zoo's mission of educating the public on the need for conservation," Moore said. "Having a little animal helps engage and inspire them."

The zoo's staff had planned Mandara's pregnancy as part of the Species Survival Plan, a collaborative effort of North American zoos designed to encourage a healthy gorilla population in captivity. In February, zoo workers stopped giving Mandara her birth control pill, which was hidden in a morning banana. By March, they now believe, she had mated with Baraka, a 16-year-old male in the family group.

Zoo officials said Mandara was an old pro at mothering, having previously given birth to five healthy offspring, three of whom still live in the Great Ape House. On Saturday, she paced from enclosure to enclosure but otherwise gave little hint that she was in labor. Then, her keepers, who had been expecting the birth for weeks, heard the newborn's high-pitched squeaking.

Mother and child will be closely monitored in coming weeks to make certain the baby remains healthy.

"This is a very critical time for the survival of the infant, and all precautions must be taken to ensure that Mandara and her baby are in an environment that is comfortable, safe and controlled," Moore said.

Staff workers have not gotten close enough to determine the sex of the infant, but they are rooting for a girl (the majority of gorillas born in captivity are males, Moore said). They will likely host a naming contest on the Friends of the National Zoo Web site.

Families who visited the Great Ape House yesterday saw sibling rivalry on display, gorilla-style. Mandara's son Kojo, age 7, threw handfuls of straw at his mother as she placidly nursed her newborn. She swatted him away gently, as one would an annoying fly.

District resident Max Block, 10 -- who is so enamored of gorillas that he raised $2,500 at a lemonade stand this summer for a preservation group -- had been watching the drama unfold for much of the weekend. He arrived to see the baby Saturday, just a few hours after it was born. He returned yesterday for another look.

"It's pretty amazing," Max said. "She's been holding it, tickling it, stroking it on the head. . . . She's a great mom."

Visitors can see the mother and baby, along with the other gorillas, in the Great Ape House between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily.

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