Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gorillas in our midst (no poker content)

As I mentioned last week, Cardgrrl and I spent an afternoon at the Albuquerque Zoo, which is surprisingly large and nice for such a small city. (Albuquerque proper is about 500,000 people, with a metropolitan area of only about 900,000.) I think we lingered at the gorilla exhibit for nearly an hour, mesmerized by these amazing animals.

I highly recommend visiting Cardgrrl's photo essay on the experience. Her words and photos do much better at capturing the feeling than mine will. Her final photo, in particular, just slayed me when I first saw it; the distant shot is a worth-a-thousand-words indictment of putting these animals into pens on the other side of the world from their rightful homes. This particular enclosure is among the nicer ones, as zoos go, but it's still a prison built for our purposes, not theirs, its inmates wholly innocent of any crime.

I found myself spending most of my gorilla-watching time trying to decipher their emotions. I don't think it's easy. Consider this female.

Is she feeling sad?




These shots were taken with only a few seconds elapsing between them, so it's unlikely that she was actually going through that range of emotions in so short a time, even though those labels are what get immediately conveyed to me by the images. I don't think our experience correlating human faces and emotions serves us well to interpret other species, even one as closely related as these primates.

I'll bet, however, that they have no such difficulty reading each other. Why else would they have such expressive faces, if not to communicate to other members of their tribes? The next pictures are of this troop's dominant male. Look at how his face changes, again over the course of just a matter of seconds in this series:

The entire dimensions of his face undergo transformation. Lots of other mammals have some range of facial expressions, but offhand I can't think of any non-primates that invest this much in making their faces so enormously flexible. It takes a lot of muscles and bony attachments--plus the neural wiring and brain mapping--to generate this variation. From an evolutionary perspective, that expenditure can only be justified if such communication is tremendously important to their survival. I wish I were in on the code.

I think both Cardgrrl and I were most taken with one female who tended to sit off by herself, not interacting much with the rest of the group. I know I took more pictures of her than any of her friends. I think I felt some sympathy with her, knowing well what it's like to be sitting alone in the corner of the playground while everybody else is interacting easily. Maybe she's on the outs socially. Maybe she's in some sort of pain. Maybe she was just having a bad day. Again, though we're naturally quick to interpret body language and facial appearance by experiences with our own kind, I doubt that the correlation to the apparent equivalents in gorillas is as close as we tend to assume. But what do I know?

Another of the band's females was obviously in late-stage pregnancy. If I saw this expression and posture in a woman of equivalently impending delivery, I'd probably be inclined to think she was contemplating the birth of her child, perhaps wondering what kind of personality he or she would develop.

But I confess that I have no idea to what extent a gravid gorilla's brain is capable of understanding what is happening to her, or what is about to happen, which in turn makes me interpret what I'm seeing with much more curiosity than certainty.

Here is a final olio of gorilla snapshots for you to ponder over. What are they thinking and/or feeling? Were I in their situation, it would be nothing but "How can I get out of here?" until I finally gave in to the futility of such efforts and surrendered myself to my fate, at which time my escape anxiety would be replaced with a crushing and unending sense of helplessness. Is that what these magnificent creatures are feeling? I don't pretend to know. But if the answer is yes, shame on us for inflicting that on them.


I originally wasn't going to include this video, because it's already in Cardgrrl's post, but I just can't resist. I've watched it several times and love it too much to leave it out.

The babies are adorable, obviously, but I'm most impressed by the silverback. You don't need any imagination to see the immense power of his musculature. He could toss around the NFL's biggest linebacker like a rag doll. But it's entirely contained and restrained, like a Ferrari engine at idle. He gently nudges his child away from the man at one point, then just sits and watches, like a patient dad tending his children at the playground. Maybe the little ones are so relaxed and bold in their exploring because they know they've got the biggest bad-ass in the jungle behind them, ready to rip apart anything or anyone that might threaten them. When it's time to move on, he just gives a little "follow me" grunt and saunters off. Amazing film.

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