There’s an old saying, “The best medicine in the world is a mother’s kiss.” On April 15, a newborn baby boy named Moke learned this first life lesson the natural way — through his earliest life experience.
You see, Moke’s mom, a western lowland gorilla called Calaya, gave birth to her very first baby at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., that day. And despite the 15-year-old female gorilla’s inexperience, her loving motherly instinct made itself known to all in the room that evening, according to a report from the zoo’s newsroom.
In the footage above, Calaya gently cradles her tiny, brand new bundle of joy and expresses her affection by peppering his face with soft kisses. She also appears to be cleaning off his face with kisses and licks, much like how a human mom might rub some schmutz off their child’s face.
Moke, whose name means “junior” or “little one” in Lingala, a Bantu language spoken in northern parts of Congo, is the first western lowland gorilla born to the National Zoo in nine years. His father, a 26-year-old, 450-pound gorilla named Baraka, watched the birth along with some gorilla pals, and let out a “pleasure rumble” once the delivery was complete, according to the Washington Post. He stayed at a respectful distance the whole time, says the zoo. Apparently it was love, or at least some version of animal attraction “at first sight,” between this gorilla “power couple,” who mated during the summer of 2017, after receiving an official recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP).
Moke’s male gender was confirmed Monday, and the zoo reports he appears to be strong and healthy. Meredith Bastian, curator of primates, told the Washington Post “He’s vocal already … He’s cried, and she … reacts.”
The zoo’s staff is watching carefully as Calaya nurses the closely clinging newborn, and they are “cautiously optimistic” that young Moke will thrive. The care staff will allow Calaya to nurse, bond with and care for her infant son, feeling fairly confident in her mothering skills considering that trainers have done their due diligence preparing the new mom in advance by showing her photos of mother gorillas, giving her a plush baby gorilla toy, and showing her how to nurse, among other necessary medical and parental behaviors, said the zoo in its statement.
So, we wondered, did the zoo keepers also teach Calaya to kiss her baby? PEOPLE asked Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and host of TV’s Into the Wild, to discern the origin of this very human-like behavior.
“As soon as a gorilla is born, the mother’s instincts kick in and she will begin to groom the baby,” Hanna told PEOPLE. “It can look a lot like human kissing! But, it looks like she is actually using her lips to groom the baby and likely did it over the baby’s whole body.”
Hanna, who joined the Columbus Zoo team in 1978 and has seen the birth of 34 gorillas since, says “Gorillas can be amazing, attentive parents and watching these babies grow has been a highlight of my career.”
The Smithsonian National Zoo clearly feels the same way:
“The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our Zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole,” said Bastian. “The primate team’s goal was to set Calaya up for success as best we could, given that she is a first-time mother. Doing so required great patience and dedication on the part of my team, and I am very proud of them and Calaya.”
Bastian went on to describe how intensely emotional the experience was for all involved.
“We all saw everything. We saw the birth. We saw the five hours of labor … We were all kind of shaking a little with happiness. It was an amazing moment to share with the team. We were all really close to tears,” Bastian told the Washington Post.
If, for some reason, Calaya should go on to present as unwilling or unable to care for Moke, the zoo staff has already prepared an older female gorilla named Mandara, “an experienced mother of six,” to take over as a foster mother just in case. In the past, Mandara fostered Baraka not long after his own birth.
The zoo has been keeping the public in the know about the new gorilla family through various social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with the hashtag #GorillaStory, and is dedicated to sharing more news of this special primate family as updates come in.
“This infant’s arrival triggers many emotions — joy, excitement, relief — and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off,” said animal keeper Melba Brown in the zoo’s statement. “We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together.”
As Moke continues his healthy trajectory, Calaya and son will be on exhibit in the Great Ape House, though some rooms may stay out of view. Zoo guests can also visit Baraka and Mandara (as well as troop members Kwame, Kojo and Kibibi) and learn about the world of gorillas at 11:30 a.m. daily from an expert great ape keeper.
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Native to Africa, western lowland gorillas live in the forests of Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, says the zoo in its statement. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the western lowland gorilla as critically endangered due to disease and poaching. Scientists estimate that in the past 20 to 25 years, the number of wild western lowland gorillas has decreased by 60 percent.