United States of America

Almost Human in a Gorilla Suit


Fernando serves Maka his first spoonful of banana baby food.

  He ate sitting up just like a baby as Fernando fed him a snack of banana baby food from the jar with a metal spoon. And he ate it fast because he LOVES human baby food. But, instead of being a baby, he is an silverback adult male Western Lowland Gorilla named Maka living at the San Diego Zoo, California, United States of America.


He opened his big pink mouth full of big white teeth and ate each spoonful in an instant. Fernando Covarrubias, a gorilla keeper for 30 years at the San Diego Zoo, cannot feed Maka fast enough. And if he stops, Maka knocks on his bedroom door or wall for more. Maka has 98% DNA of a human yet he is a gorilla with 2 chromosomes from being human.

All gorillas have access to the open air yard, and are rotated on exhibit and off exhibit throughout the day. When they are off-exhibit in their bedrooms, it gives keepers a chance to check their health and work on training.


Maka waiting for another bite of baby food.
Maka waiting for another bite of baby food.


Many times, Fernando explained, vitamins and needed medicines are mixed in the baby food to keep Maka healthy. And Maka always takes his meds because he loves his baby food so much and he doesn’t even wear a bib or get one drop of food on his beautiful black hair or his body.


Fernando, keeper of gorillas for 30 years, at the San Diego Zoo.
Fernando, keeper of gorillas for 30 years, at the San Diego Zoo.

For their main nutrition, Fernando gives each gorilla daily biscuits full of plant matter and vital nutrients because gorillas are leaf eaters. These biscuits are formulated to be like the nutrients gorillas eat in the wild. As the gorillas eat their biscuits each morning, they are kept separate so Fernando will know each one is getting complete nutrition.


Now it was time for different vegetables and fruits like bananas, apples, figs and plant-based foods they feed the gorillas. Between the bite-size fruit treats, Maka showed how he communicates with Fernando.  “Show me your left ear,” Fernando said, and Maka showed his left ear through the bars in his bedroom. “Show you right foot,” and Maka lifted his huge right foot into Fernando’s hand so he could check it out.

Maka shows his ear for examination by Fernando.
Maka shows his ear for examination by Fernando.

 Next, Maka stuck his left hand out and Fernando held his hand and examined it. It was the cutest big plastic-looking hand with huge fingers twice the size of a male human adult’s. “Turn around and show your back,” and Maka showed his beautiful silverback so Fernando could look at it. “You are good to go for today,” Fernando told Maka, as he had just completed his daily medical exam.DSC_0428


“We train the gorillas and all the animals here in the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to respond to our requests so we can keep them healthy just like a Mother would do her child.”We are their keeper, primary nurse, chef, behavior specialist, maid and cleaner, friend, and teacher,” Fernando said admiringly. “We would like to teach Maka how to work a touch screen computer.”

20-month-old Monroe in constant motion
20-month-old Monroe in constant motion

While all of this was going on at the San Diego Zoo, 20-month old Monroe was romping, tumbling, rumbling, running and eating carrots for all the visitors to see at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where he was born June 17, 2011. In a second, he would be riding the back of his surrogate great-great-grandmother, Vila, for a few feet and then she would put him off.

Vila died January 25, 2018 surrounded by her gorilla family group. She was 60 years old and the second oldest lowland gorilla in the world. DSC_1003

Vila held the record as the second oldest gorilla in the world living in captivity. when Monroe was nearing his terrible two’s, most of the adults in the gorilla troop don’t want to run and play full time with Monroe.

Monroe eating s snack on the run.
Monroe eating s snack on the run.

Enter Frank, a 4-year-old gorilla from another gorilla family troop at the San Diego Zoo, as a potential playmate for Monroe”, Peggy Sexton, lead keeper in the Mammal Dept. at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park explained.

Peggy Sexton, lead keeper in the Mammal Department at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Peggy Sexton, lead keeper in the Mammal Department at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“We’re bringing Frank and Monroe together so they can be together throughout their lives in a bachelor troop, if necessary, and it is best to introduce them as youngsters.


Watching Monroe!
Watching Monroe!

Monroe and Frank, being from different troops, however, are getting to know one another as they visit through bars in their adjoining bedrooms. Smelling, watching, touching, running back and forth, and playing is helping to bond these cute little gorilla children together so they can eventually grow up together in the same troop. After a careful introduction period, they were brought together in the same exhibit to run, play and have disagreements just like real brothers while the older adults continue to sit and watch. Vila,the great-great grandmother and Monroe continue to be best friends.


Another one who doesn’t run and play much is Winston, the dominant silverback male, born in the wild in West Africa. “This huge gorilla with a beautiful silverback, loves to eat raisins that the keeper throws around the free roaming exhibit for him and his troop members to pick off the ground one at a time with those huge fingers,” Rex Little, volunteer docent at the gorilla exhibit, pointed out. Then 420-pound Winston walked around and collected 15-inch long lettuce leaves then sat on a log to eat them. He was a picture of contentment, happiness and joy as he sat on the log eating lettuce and watching Monroe.

 Monroe’s Mother, Kokamo, also closely watches her active baby as she goes about her daily life in the exhibit and he goes about his baby antics and is into everything. He practices pounding on his chest with his fists like a silverback gorilla does to show dominance. Monroe watches every move the adults make and then copies them.

  Another adult female listening to all the action is Imani. She is Frank’s surrogate mom who waits in her
bedroom with Frank until it is their turn in the exhibit yard. Imani is included  in Winston’s troop with Frank now.
Gorilla females can have a baby every 4 years, and, hopefully, in the future, Monroe may get another playmate in addition to Frank.

 After a full day of non-stop activities, Monroe, Kokamo, Winston, Vila, and Kamilah, sleep together in their bedroom on wood excelsior and other nesting materials. In the morning, after having their morning meal (including low starch primate biscuits), Winston, and Kokamo carrying baby Monroe in her arms, make their grand entrance into the exhibit together for the world to see the leaders of their family troop. The others follow, until all 5 troop members are in the exhibit eating their raisin treats.


Monroe "playing" with an elderly family member.
Monroe “playing” with an elderly family member.

And they all watch Monroe and Frank while they play, explore, romp and get attention and admiration of the guests at the Safari Park while Maka awaits his next snack of banana baby food at the San Diego Zoo. It’s a wonderful gorilla life.

Monroe and his antics.
Monroe and his antics.
Sitting and watching Monroe.
Sitting and watching Monroe.
Satu, the dominant male amoung the Orangutan family, wonders what Janey and I are talking about.
Satu, the dominant male amoung the Orangutan family, wonders what Janey and I were talking about.
Janey and I have a conversation in the Orangutan exhibit.
Janey and I have a conversation in the Orangutan exhibit.
Maggie with the San Diego Zoo Global on the left and Mary Moore, volunteer Orangutan expert, on the right.
Maggie with the San Diego Zoo Global on the left and Mary Moore, volunteer Orangutan expert, on the right.
Bai Yun and her baby hugging at the San Diego Zoo.
Bai Yun and her baby hugging at the San Diego Zoo.
Mr. & Mrs. Giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.
Mr. & Mrs. Giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.
An elephant puts her foot out so the keeper can give her a pedicure.
An elephant puts her foot out so the keeper can give her a pedicure.
OH, what a big yawn!
OH, what a big yawn!
Africa Botswana

Got To See the Leopard in Botswana

Our morning game drive was one-of-a-kind at Chief’s Camp and the Moremi Game Reserve National Park in the middle of the Okavango Delta. We left for our game drive at 7 a.m. after getting up at 5:30 a.m., and having breakfast at 6:30 a.m. It was just perfect weather and a tad cool which is the way you want it. After we “went swimming”  crossing the Okavango Delta, we drove and we drove and didn’t see any of the big game. It was our last game drive in the Delta because we were going to Chobe National Park in the northern corner of Botswana by the river area that drains into the Zambezi River.

Our driver, Ali, was kind of an aggressive safari driver/guide. He would stop periodically and instantly to look at animal tracks on the ground and he could tell if it was a lion, leopard, elephant, hyena, etc. He also would suddenly stop and listen to the animals, particularly the impala, because they snort real loud when a predator is near. So this is how the drivers know where and how to spot the animals. It is like hunting a needle in a haystack. It is the thrill of the hunt that makes a safari, and this morning was a true 100% thrilling one of a kind safari ride!

Again, Ali suddenly stopped and leaned out of the vehicle to look at tracks on the ground and said “Lions, that way.” And he made a U-turn and was driving down this trail and he said “here they are.” And none of us saw them. He said, “See they are right here and they were about 10 feet from our van and lying down in the cream-colored grass for an early morning nap”. Then they jumped up and stared at us for a while and then they napped again. It must have been a rough night as lions hunt mostly at night.

Ali told us the lions were about 7-8years old and they were the dominate males in the area, known as the “Bocca Boys” after the river they had to cross to get there. They had dark brown full manes and were so beautiful. We remarked how such a dangerous animal could be so beautiful. We were about 10 ft. away from them. It just took our breath away because this was not the zoo. These were 2 wild killer animals and we were sitting there 10 ft. away, priceless!

Then Ali got a call on the radio while he was driving from a driver and they tell each other what they have spotted or that they need help. And they always speak in their language so we will not know what they are saying. The radio came on and it was our tour guide KB who was driving the other safari van. KB said they have spotted a leopard! Leopards are very rare and very hard to fine. They are like a needle in a haystack. Now our decision was-do we stay and watch 2 precious beautiful young male lions or to leave and go see the leopard.

Ali makes the decision to go see the leopard as it would be a “great finale” for our final Okavango Delta safari. Previously on all safaris, including this one, it was no big thing to leave what you were doing and seeing and go to where an animal has been spotted. But what we didn’t know was that this would be no simple thing.

Ali drove that safari van “like a bat out of hell.” We were all holding on for dear life. Ali moved Chris to the front seat from the back seat because she would be thrown out of the van. We soon learned what he was talking about. In all my 6 safaris I have never had such a ride. Even getting to and from Antarctica was not that bad. Ali took us through anything and everything like the US Marines and Team 6. And we did it at a high rate of speed. I am guessing we went an average of 30 mph.

Now, that might not seem like a high rate. But we went over 10 inch logs on the ground, downed small trees, through holes in the ground and water ponds, acacia trees covered with thorns, tree limbs that would hit us in the face, bumps that would just about throw us from the van and we were in the center–that is a high rate of speed!. We would come upon a roadblock of trees, brush, and stumps with no possible way of getting through it and we went right through it! Tree branches hit us and thorns cut us and right-left instant moves whipped us from side to side and crossing a 10 inch log would jolt us to the ground. But we had to see that leopard!

Now, another thing I didn’t tell you was that usually it takes less than 5 minutes to catch up with another van that has spotted an animal. But, not this time. It took 40 minutes of this rough riding to finally find that leopard and it took me a while to appreciate that beautiful cat because I was just totally exhausted-as were the other 4 in the van. And I wondered if it was worth all of that just to see a leopard. And we all wondered how many back surgeries we would have to have. I asked Ali if we were going to the top of Africa it took so long. I thought the ride would never end. We were crossing the Moremi Game Reserve we learned later. It sure is a big park.

But then, we finally located KB and the other vans. They were in constant radio communication so they could lead Ali right to it. Each driver describes and knows all areas and they don’t need GPS. How they find their way around is beyond us.

The female leopard was walking constantly so we had to keep up with her and the wild driving continued. She was so beautiful and a gorgeous specimen. When she would pause for a short rest, the cameras would click like machine guns. And we tracked her to 10 different sites and positions. Ali would move us around the cat to get the best view and camera shot. And we got some good ones.

Then Ali said, “I’ve got even a better leopard to show you.”So off we went on another wild ride through the bush. And again it was worth it. There in the tree was an absolutely gorgeous leopard with her breakfast, an impala. We really got some fabulous photos of the leopard because Ali kept moving us around until we did. He really earned his tip that day!!!

It was a fabulous end to our safari in the Okavango Delta. We saw two gorgeous male dominate full-mane well-fed lions and 2 leopards with absolutely fabulous skins and furs and they were both well fed. Now, we had to get to our plane, but we all had to use the restroom after that ride so the plane would just have to wait. So out in the middle of the Okavango Delta where wild animals live, we all went to the restroom and made it safely back to the safari vehicle.

We were supposed to leave on the plane at 10:15 am. Only we were far away from the runway looking at leopards and lions. So again, Ali drives “like a bat out of hell” to get us to our airplane. Through water, brush, trees, stumps, 10 inch limbs, you name it we went over and through it and made it to the runway by 10:16 am. And the two planes were waiting for us and all went well.

So now you get a good idea what it is like to be on a one-of-a-kind safari run in the Okavango Delta. When a big cat or elephant or something in the killer animal category is spotted, all hell breaks out to get the visitor to see it close. And it was worth every effort and every minute. We thanked Ali and thanked Ali and thanked Ali for making our Okavango Delta experience a “beyond awesome” dream. It was priceless!

Photo Copy ©  2015 


United States of America

Roar, Snore and S’Mores on Safari

Instantly, we became tigers and others became lions, elephants or hippos. And, in case we forgot, a simulated tiger skin wristband imprinted with our tent number reminded us. Next came a t-shirt. Then the tiger group was on its way to a roaring and snoring good time on a safari in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Hand luggage in tow, we began searching for our tent, one of 46 overlooking the African savannah where giraffe, Northern White Rhino, Cape buffalo, African crowned crane, grant gazelle, oryx, and giant egret roam daily in the Safari Park, 35 miles north of the Zoo.

Finally, we found our tent #37 written on a tree stump stool. Unzipping the tent “door” revealed a normal hotel room encased in a heavy canvas tent. The electric lamps, fan, heater and hot and cold water all worked so we were in business next to the elephants..

The 17 elephants were putting on a welcome show for us: eating hay,  pooping, swimming and submerging trunk and all under water, rocking and rolling and twisting to their silent music, and flipping over in their daily ritual. And they could do this because their exhibit compound had just been cleaned by 4 keepers who had hand raked and collected their poop from the previous day. Each day, 2,000 pounds of poop is gathered and placed in a Bobcat bulldozer and larger truck, then delivered to local farmers for fertilizer.

Too soon, the tiger group had to leave the elephants and continue our orientation tour.  This time our hunt was for the restrooms, as there were none in the tents. A block or so away we found our target, full-service restrooms including showers.

The dinner bell was calling us so off we went for cocktails, then chicken, green salad, squash, and cake overlooking the Park’s African savannah. All 87 of us ate dinner on wooden picnic tables while watching the sun and animals end another day.

On our safari, we were given a glimpse into “as the elephant world turns.” Drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa, allowed the San Diego Zoo to acquire 7 elephants, arriving via 747 aircraft. They were going about their daily lives, eating, pooping, sparring and resting with each other. Since males only associate with females for mating, one solitary bull elephant was by himself and was busy throwing dust all over his body to kill insects, to cleanse and to cool.

Meanwhile Umngani, a female elephant, was standing in the elephant yard nursery waiting her third calf’s birth. Her male and female offspring, Ingadze and Khosi, were visiting every day to see if they had a new playmate.

As we became more involved in the elephant world, we learned that male and female African elephants have tusks, but only the Asian males have them. So, when an Asian bull elephant first saw a female African elephant, he didn’t know she was female. He only knew females did not have tusks. After a few days, he figured it out and started showing her what a strong elephant he was by picking up a log and running with it and dropping it near her over and over.

In the Rhino world, two female Rhinos looked like they were in relationship as they napped side by side in the savannah.  But then we learned only one male and female  Rhino pair was put together in an exhibit, but no baby Rhinos were born. By
1972, the solution was discovered when another female was added to their exhibit. Like elephants, a female Rhino only associates with a male when she is ready to mate. The rest of the time, female Rhinos prefer being with their female Rhino friends. Now, there are many baby Rhinos.

After a break for S’Mores and hot chocolate by the fire pit, we revisited the elephant world to find six elephants of all sizes and ages taking a late-evening bath. They totally submerged themselves in the water, rocked and rolled over with all four feet in the air, and did elephant acrobatics. What a soothing and calming experience this was to watch.

After dark we entered the lion family world, invited there by the lion’s keeper into their kitchen and bedrooms. Their freezer was filled with large round stickless popsicles made from meat blood drippings. “The lions LOVE them, the keeper told us. And every time she works with the male lion, Izu, she collects hair shed from his huge mane and keeps it in a plastic container for all to feel. It was downy soft. What an unexpected and rare glimpse into a world we would never have known.

Finally, it was time to snore at this Roar and Snore safari adventure. We had no trouble meeting the 10:30 PM “lights out” curfew. Having been warned that elephants would trumpet and lions would roar during the night, we asked others if they heard the sounds. We didn’t know since we slept so soundly in our comfortable bed in the tent. So at breakfast, everyone we asked said “Yes” and we never heard one sound as we enjoyed snoring in our tent.

The grand finale was petting and feeding a rare Rothschild giraffe, Chomoa, and a rare Northern White Rhino, Bhopu. Caravan safaris are a regular event at the Park and these two animals know treats are available from the truck. So, each voluntarily nonchalantly sauntered straight to the truck to pose like a movie star with each person for photos in exchange for their favorite green leaf snack. Amazingly, each animal knew when all photos were taken so they just turned around and sauntered off just like they had come. The movie star Choma was finished with this truck and awaited the next safari to arrive. Then it was time to leave an awesome roaring and snoring fun safari adventure in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and return to our normal everyday lives. But it sure was hard to leave those precious, priceless animals and their fun, unique personalities.

Photo Copy ©  2015 

Africa Kenya Tanzania

Elephants, Cheetahs, Leopard, Monkeys, Rhinos, Hyenas, Hippos, and a Bird

When we were in Kenya-Tanzania in February, our Tauck World Discovery tour director, Deanne Inman,  gave us an airmail note-letter. With this, we were to write ourselves a letter about our safari we had just completed. Then she would mail it to us 3 weeks after we returned home and we were back into our normal daily hustle and bustle.

So, following is the letter I wrote.

1.   I remember going back to the hotel, the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, from the Tauck World Discovery Farewell Cocktail Party in the bush, and the only thing on the road  was 5 elephants.

2.   I remember having to check the back tire of our safari vehicle (I had to go to the WC behind the van because  no restrooms were nearby) in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, and therefore, causing our van to have to separate from the other 2 Tauck safari vehicles. This made us a little late, causing only our safari vehicle occupants to see a rare cheetah.

3.   I remember eating Breakfast on a Picnic Table in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania while a Vervet monkey was in our locked safari vehicle with the roof open, having Breakfast from my tote bag. He joyously ate my only package of Fritos and


4.   I remember Victoria Vance of Manhattan walking to her seat carrying her plate of food at our bush luncheon in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. All of a sudden, a black-shouldered Kite (bird) swooped down from the tree above and stole her juicy steak from her plate. She hollered “He hit me, He took it,” and she didn’t even drop her plate.

5.   I remember in Samburu, Kenya, a Vervet Monkey stealing the English Bread that Blase had on his plate as he was eating Breakfast. That monkey was watching Blase from afar and then suddenly jumped through the open window behind Blase, jumped on the table, and stole his bread and took off, all in an instant.

6.   I remember a beautiful, gorgeous adult leopard resting in a tree, only to learn she was sitting on food she had caught earlier. And then the leopard got up, carried the food in its mouth and left the tree.

7.   I remember 4 hyenas eating the stinky carcass of and elephant or buffalo, in the Maasai Mara in Kenya, and seeing 3 other hyenas who had eaten or were ready to eat, waiting nearby. Also nearby were 2 male lions who probably were involved in the kill, lying nearby, and one had an injured eye.

8.   I remember watching a Herron eat a snake that was yellow on one side. The Herron played with the snake and then ate it, inch by inch. I was watching my first kill in the wild on an African Safari.

9.   I remember Tom, with his huge telephoto lens camera, and several others on the safari, clicking dozens of  photos per second, when a Top 5 animal appeared every time.

Tom also wrote a letter about his safari memories and they are:

1.   I remember the weather being perfect with no rain and everything green, green, and green except Samburu, Kenya which was desert-like.

2.   I remember the elephant in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania coming up to our safari vehicle and smelling us with her trunk.

3.   I remember the 6-7 year old male elephant in Samburu, Kenya, charging, threatening, stomping, and bluffing us in our safari vehicle, trying to get us to leave. And all the while, our safari driver telling us he was just a teenager learning how to be a big bull elephant one day.

4.   I remember in Samburu, Kenya, telling Carolyn to turn around and she said “Why”? And I said “Look”. She turned around, saw the Baboons right by her and screamed and jumped with surprise.

5.   I remember in the Serengeti, seeing 2 hippos in a pond, playing, biting, and fighting each other with their mouths open, showing all those huge teeth.

6.   I remember in Sweetwater, Kenya, being told by the armed Park Rangers to come and pet the White Rhino, Max.  I did right away but Carolyn was scared and, finally, we both had our photo made with him.

7.   I remember spotting the male white rhino on the way to the Tauck World Discovery Farewell Cocktail Party BEFORE our safari driver spotted it.

8.   I remember Carolyn getting a Surprise 25th Tauck Tour cake in Samburu, Kenya, complete with sparkler and the hotel waiters with instruments to accompany her 26th tour send off and many more.

9.   I remember that an African Safari in the wild is the No. 1 most awesome experience in the world and that I promise to be on another African Safari every 2 years with Tauck World Discovery.