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A gorilla keeper’s memoir about her years (1982-1996) at the Columbus Zoo.

Armstrong began her career when zoos were on the cusp of rethinking their mission and their responsibilities regarding the animals in their care. It was a roiling time in the zoo community, with new ideas challenging traditional practices. Early on, the author found her niche in the zoo’s ape house, where even the simple chores gave her pleasure as they brought her close to the gorillas. In a comfortable, conversational writing style, she composes short, crisp stories about her encounters with the great apes. She eschews the chart, table, and figure approach of behavioral research, instead relying on a purely anecdotal telling of her real-life experiences with the gorillas. One of her first lessons was that keepers serve as the first advocates for the gorillas in captivity. Armstrong chronicles the processes of introducing hay for nesting and providing playthings for entertainment and structures to climb on and swing from. Today, when many zoos have created entire habitats for their apes, these elemental changes may seem negligible, but they were the first steps in fashioning suitable environments in which the apes could thrive rather than just survive. Armstrong was in the forefront of exchanging experiences with other zoos around the world, developing a network of relationships that spread advances made in gorilla husbandry and zoo management. The zoo’s philosophy became “Do the right thing for the right reasons,” guided by insights from the ape house: “Never ever presume anything; the gorillas will tell you through obvious and not so obvious ways what they want, what they need. Never bring your presumption to the fore as that will predictably get someone hurt, either a gorilla or a keeper.” Though the author’s discussions of zoo management are mostly engaging, the most heart-touching material is found in the profiles of the gorillas.

A pleasing gathering of distinct personalities and unique stories from the ape house.

Pub Date: March 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-8142-5571-1
Page count: 312pp
Publisher: Trillium/Ohio State Univ. Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2020