NO MATTER how many times animal behaviorists tell us that the gorilla is a shy, gentle creature, it will continue to be thought of by some as the archetypal humanoid monster, King Kong.
More than any other speices, gorillas lend themselves to a caricaturization of what are thought to be the most beastly qualities of men. Everything about them is masculine in extreme stereotype. They are big and hairy, with powerful bodies driven by primal instincts. The movie gorillas lumber along on two massive legs, smashing their way through civilization with one overriding drives to find and rape a human female. A beautiful but frail and refined Fay Wray. It's "Me Tarzans, you Jane taken to the nth degree.
Gorillas make a Plausible movie monsters only if you don't know anything about gorillas. If you want to enjoy King Kong and all the others, never mind that naturalists and others who bothered to learn have been saying for decades that gorillas are not ferocious.
Forget the fact that there long have been those who claimed that this introverted ape, who shuns human contact, is a lazy vegetarian. And try to forget the fact, evident to anyone who sees even a zoo gorilla, that they walk on all fours and never get up their hind legs except on very rare occassions and then only for a few seconds. Put all this out of your mind, for it will erode one of the most popular animal myths of this century.
Between 1908 and 1976, at least 60 commercially released American films depicted gorillas a ugly, brutish monsters filled with lust and violence. Most were dreadful films, but they nonetheless held millions of Americans, particularly young people, spellbound and doubtless helpful shape some attitudes toward the wild species.
The films can be put into two categories: those in which the gorilla is representated as a real gorilla and those in which the gorilla is only a brutish facade, inside which is trapped a good and decent man.
King Kong obviously, is the latter type, for inside the 50-foot ape there beats a heart of pure goodness. He seems to those who do not know him to be bad but, folks, his heart is pure.
But was King Kong a gorilla? No, he was a human being, and it's time we stopped maligning the apes. Fear of Fangs
THE MYTH of the ferocious gorilla is a relatively new "discovered" until 1846, when two American missionaires, Thomas Staughton Savage and John Leighton Wilson, came upon some skulls in Cabon and sent them to British anatomists.
One of the anatomists who received the skulls, Richard Owen, was impressed, as no doubt were many others who saw the skulls, by the size of the daggerlike canine teeth. They are truly huge, and in the thinking of that day such teeth were immediately assumed to be primarily weapons.
We now know that long fangs serve as at least as much for display, intended to frighten off attackers or to establish dominance within the group. In a month full of obviously vegetarian grinding teeth like the gorilla's, the long canines are almost exclusively for display. But this is a recent discovery, and a century ago the gorilla's teeth seemed amply to confirm its reputation for ferocity.
People who study wild gorillas today almost never take along firearms. They have seen the loud and, to the uninitiated, frightening "threat displays" of the male gorillas with all its roarings, flashings of fangs, resonant chest beatings and rushes that invariably stop short of actual attack. It is, to be sure, an impressive display, especially when executed by a 6-foot-tall, 400-pound gorilla with an 8-foot arm span.
Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who has been studying gorillas in East Africa for the last 10 years, says that in the first 3,000 hours of observation she recorded "only a few minutes" of aggressive behavior. She recounts one incident where five huge males charged her simultaneously and quickly closed in. When the biggest gorilla was barely a yard away, Fossey spread her arms and shouted, "Whoa." All five big male gorillas stopped and eventually ambled away.
This sort of display has been observed a number of times, in the wild and in captivity, and it follows a fairly predicatable pattern. You are supposed to get scared. If you don't, the gorilla concludes - to be unabashedly anthropomorphic - that you have called its bluff and it goes away.
Through the research of the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz and the Netherlands-born British zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, we now know that this type of behavior results when the beast is faced with a choice of either confronting an intruder or running away. Lorenz and Tinberger theorize that the tension between these alternatives creates such a state of anxiety and unease - probably from the sudden flow of adrenalin - that the animal looks for ways to displace its tensions. It has to do something to drain away the nervous energy. Even human beings throw objects, slam doors or kick cats as a way of draining off energy without doing harm to the adversary or the ego. The Least Sexual Primate
PERHAPS THE most widely held belief about the gorilla is its sexual prowess. A good number of the gorilla movies rely on this theme, the most cliched scene being one in which the hairy brutes carry some scantly clad woman about a city. The appeal of such a scene to a human audience is obvious. Women might shiver with fear but, believing that gorillas are highly sexed and well endowed, might also find the scene vicariously exciting. Men, sharing the myth, might fantasize themselves in the role of the gorilla.
But, as serious observers have found, gorillas are about the least sexually active species of primate. Geoffrey H. Bourne, director of the Yerkes Regional primate Research Center in Atlanta and a world authority on apes, says, "Man may be the sexiest of all primates, and the gorilla may be the least sexy. This certainly must come as a surprise to those who believed the gorilla to be the supersexed stud of the animal kingdom . . ."
George Schaller, a leading modern gorilla observer, whose findings have revolutionized the ape's image, learned that the gorilla's day is hardly one of chasing women or running amok in civilization. It is a gentle, unhurried, even monotonous and humdrum existence that, for all the gorilla's strength and energy, proceeds as slowly as the sun crossing the sky.
The gorilla's day begins around seven in the morning, after the sun has risen. Once they awaken, the gorillas begin feeding in the immediate area, pulling up wild celery or bamboo shoots, plucking leaves, and chewing on stems. They are strictly vegetarians.
All the animals, from the dominant big male to the subordinate younger males and the females and infants, amble about on the ground on all four legs until about 10 a.m., when they take a slesta, sometimes sleeping, sometimes just sitting and grooming one another.
By mid-afternoon the slesta is over, and the entire family, at a signal from the dominant male, assemblies in single file and moves off to another feeding ground, usually no more than a half mile away. There they stop and feed again for a few hours until about dusk. By 6 p.m., as the sun is going down, the big male starts to make a new nest. This signals the others to do the same.
By dark, all the gorillas are in their nests and do not go out again until the next morning.
While Schaller merely observed the animals, Fossey has tried to move in with them by imitating gorilla behavior and becoming accepted as a member of their family groups. She has succeeded beyond most zoologists' expectations and her achievement should drive the final nail in the coffin of sterotypes about violent, lustful gorillas.
Gorillas, though not cherubic, are not the vicious, supersexed beasts of our myths and movies. They can occasionally be quite nasty. But like all other animals viewed in an anthropomorphic sense, gorillas have their good traits and their bad traits. A mature appreciation of gorillas must accept both.