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Two Knoxville Zoo gorillas are pregnant, babies due this summer

Posted at 10:30 AM, Feb 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-12 15:57:53-05

KNOXVILLE — Two Knoxville Zoo gorillas are pregnant and are expected to give birth this summer. Their babies would be the first of the endangered species born at the park.

The zoo announced Thursday morning that gorillas Hope, 31, and Machi, 39, are past their first trimesters of pregnancy. Each would give birth in late May or early June; a gorilla is pregnant for about nine months.

Zoo staff pulled back two black curtains during the announcement to reveal the expectant mothers munching lettuce in an exhibit decorated with baby blankets and pregnancy magazines.

The gorillas will be the first born in Tennessee in 30 years, and those were delivered at the Memphis zoo. No gorilla has been born in Knoxville.

Director Lisa New said the zoo was excited to be part of conserving the endangered species. She said the zoo and keepers were ready for the births, adding, “We are really ready. We are just as ready as any new parent can be.”

Hope, like most new moms, may be changing here dietary preferences. Instead of eating bananas, she now enjoys only the peels.

The park’s teenage male Bantu, who has lived with the park’s trio of female gorillas since late last August, is the father. The third female, Kowali, 36, isn’t pregnant and is on birth control.

Zoo officials declined to confirm or deny the pregnancies, citing today’s 10:30 a.m. news conference when they planned “an exciting announcement regarding the future of our Western lowland gorilla conservation program.”

One gorilla born in captivity is always a boost to the number and future of the endangered species. Baby gorillas also are crowd pleasers that often increase attendance to parks where they live.

Being the home to a gorilla family with not only one but two infants would be particularly special for the Knoxville Zoo. The park’s natural habitat Gorilla Valley opened in 1993 but for 20 years housed mostly bachelor male apes. Before Hope and Machi arrived in 2013, the zoo’s only female gorilla had been the older, infertile Bibi who died in 2007.

Both of the pregnant females have given birth before when they lived in other parks. Hope, known for her pot belly even before she became pregnant, was born at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. She came to Knoxville from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. Machi arrived from Zoo Atlanta.

Where captive gorillas live and who they live with in accredited zoos like Knoxville’s is determined by an Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan. Knoxville’s first potential family group was created in late 2013. But Bantu wasn’t included. Instead the plan designated older gorilla Wantu as the group head.

Wantu came to Knoxville in 2013 from the Kansas City Zoo, where he’d lived alone for 15 years. He’d never fathered offspring. When he was placed in living quarters with the zoo three female apes, no one seemed interested in each other.

At that time the younger Bantu lived in a nearby gorilla exhibit. It became apparent to zookeepers that he and the female gorillas, who would see and hear each other, were interested in becoming acquainted. By late August 2014 Bantu had replaced Wantu. Within 24 hours of meeting Hope, Machi and Kowali, he’d mated with all three.

Prenatal care for the expectant ape mothers is expected to include prenatal vitamins, regular veterinary checkups and ultrasounds.