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Liam and the Silverback

Thursday, January 21, 2010

People sometimes ask me what my favorite bird or animal might be. I can't ever say. It's like asking me which of my kids is my favorite. Can't do it. I have no trouble telling you my favorite breed of dog (Shih-Tzu, of course)
but the favoritism stops there.

I will say that as a young kid, younger than Liam, I was completely obsessed with great apes. I acted like a chimpanzee and had an incredibly convincing pant-hoot and set of mannerisms, including knuckle-walking. It was part of my obsession with Jane Goodall's work, the incredible things we learned about these creatures thanks to her diligence and love.

And to this day, I linger longest in the great ape house at any zoo. I will never forget being privileged to stay after hours to watch the Columbus gorillas prepare their night nests. The kids and Bill and I huddled quietly, feeling as if we were intruding in a boudoir. And we were, but the gorillas were gracious about it.

I think much of the fascination for me as an artist is watching the human/animal line blur and dissolve as I watch the great apes. We are so very close in genetic makeup, and yet worlds and civilizations apart from them.
Mumbah the silverback western lowland gorilla was enjoying some epic nose-picking up close to the glass. Naturally, Liam was fascinated. We began to sing a little song: "Everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it, Pickin' their nose and...

It wasn't a very polite song. Mumbah didn't mind. He kept on mining.

Liam watched, rapt. Just the thing for an inveterate Captain Underpants fan, aged 10. And suddenly Mumbah turned his great head and acknowledged this snowy little ape.

Liam tilted his head, and their eyes met for a long and delicious moment.

It is rare for any of the gorillas to acknowledge a visitor, we learned from the Columbus Zoo's wonderful docent, Sue Allison Roberts. But Mumbah has a special liking for young boys. There is a boy who comes to the zoo frequently to draw quietly and be near the gorillas, and Mumbah comes over to stay with him, just a pane of glass away. Sue saw him put his great black palm against the glass to touch the boy's palm one day.

Perhaps Mumbah picked up the artistic bent in Liam. Perhaps it was Liam's special gentleness that attracted him. Maybe he thought our song was funny. We'll never know. But Liam was electrified by this contact.
And Mumbah went back to his toilette.
All photos of Liam and Mumbah in this post are by Bill of the Birds

who had the right lens to catch the moment.

Animals, animals... day after day they save me from unbroken gray skies and days of solitude. I had an out-of-body experience the other night as the kids and I sat on the couch, switching between reruns of "The Office" and the inane, inordinately painful auditions for "American Idol." Don't ask why we watch it. We don't know. It's a bonding experience for me and the kids.

There I was, a kid on either side, their legs draped across mine. In each kid's fist was a sleepy Chinese dwarf hamster. On my knee was Charlie the 23-year-old macaw, adding his voluble commentary to the auditions, laughing, gasping and imitating my hacking cough to perfection. On the back of the couch, acting as a warm, jerky neck pillow, was Chet Baker, his paws wrapped around a Nylabone. Crounchcrounchcrounchcrounch. It is our peaceable kingdom, a raucous, hilarious place, and having kids and animals around to love and care for gets me through.


What an absolutely awesome post!

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Your wonderful stories and pictures are the highlight of my day!

I'm loving these zoo encounters through your gifts of observation and knowledge. I'm moved to share a magic day at the zoo many years ago when my daughter, a college student, met me at Lincoln Park Zoo with some of her mates, one of whom had grown up on the grounds of Hazlet Zoo in England. This young man, had been a child raised with gorillas, and had lost contact with a male who was the same age, 3, when they were separated by the transfer of the gorilla to this zoo. They hadn't seen each other until this moment, about 15 years later, when we all walked into the public area. The recognition was instantaneous, the gorilla came up to the glass, started hooting, put his hand on the glass and held it there for a long time while they connected in what I can only say was love. The keeper let us into the back area where they continued, still separated, their rejoining. I couldn't stop shaking and crying for the pure beauty of it. And the recognition of what sentient really means. Leslie Yoshitani

Posted by Anonymous January 21, 2010 at 1:14 PM

Well of course Mumbah recognized a distant relative. Liam *is* the son of two Swinging Orangutans.

You just described everything I want out of life. I'm only 23 but I'm dreaming of the day I too will have my kids and animals all cuddled up around me on the couch or porch.

As always beautifully written. Thank you!


Posted by Anonymous January 21, 2010 at 5:07 PM

Well put. It doesn't get better than that.

Thank´s for sharing these.Iloved them !
And thank you for reminding us about Jane Goodall.
In my blog i´m posting a little tribute to a great Spanish naturalist named Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.
I would be honoured if you could stop by.

That Liam is one special (and lucky) boy! Nicely written. Thank you, Julie.

All rolled into one post - wonder, love, hilarity, peace. Liam's eye-to-eye with the gorilla is priceless. You are truly blessed, Julie.

For me, American Idol means on the sofa with Bella leaning on one side of me, and Chloe on the other.

Oh man... I just got done being weepy over some video on CuteOverload, and then I read this? I am now a puddle of emotion. Thanks for sharing all this love.

Words fail with the power of that simple gesture of gorilla palm to man-child takes your breath away.

Thanks, Julie. It's way too quiet in d'villa this morning, especially after two weeks of lying low with The Cold. Your post helps me start reconnecting. Lovely.


Posted by Anonymous January 22, 2010 at 8:10 AM

We are but a snippet of genetic code away from the great apes. What gets me is that knowing look in their eyes--they seem to say: you, me, family. We, on the other hand, have done far too much to harm that kin-ship. Lord knows every great ape would have myriad reasons to NEVER acknowledge us.
As for your peaceable kingdow--what a scene. I love the detail that Charlie picked up the sound of your cough, and imitated it.

Thank you for easing me through my transition from work-week to weekend with your soulful words. I live across the river from the local zoo and rely on the nourishment it provides....the booming hoots of Siamang Gibbons claiming my yard as THEIR home range, the sub-sonic roar of the African Lion reverberating through my bones (his cubs are CUTE!). I think I'll settle back in my chair now and do some nose picking of my own in solidarity with the gorilla. (This 2-week-long cold/crud is NASTY this winter!)

Posted by Anonymous January 22, 2010 at 2:56 PM

Anonymous, I don't know who you are, but you rock. Happy picking.
I love all these comments, in fact.

Leslie, that story is amazing. But we shouldn't be amazed at the great apes; that's why they're great. They have it all-soul and memory. All they lack is language and an opposable thumb. Oh, and a little decorum. Pick pick pick.

I am having a little trouble with this twice-a-week regime. Bubbling over with things to say. But getting paintings done!! Eyes on the prize!!

You guys make my day.


great pics, great kids, great apes. and chet baker is still my hero!

Julie - this is so much fun! Thank for you for the zoo series - always an extra treat with the children (Liam seems like such a sweet spirit of a child) and of course, Chet Baker.

Thank you!

Anonymous Nose-picker is Amy. Guess I'll try blogging.

I just stumbled upon you and loved it.

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