What a sincere pleasure and honor it is to host Clare Meeker today. Clare and I have both been at this writing business for a long, long time (back to typewriter days!). Clare’s writing passion is nonfiction; she is a dogged researcher and a fine writer. You will love, as I do, her newest picture book, Growing Up Gorilla: How a Zoo Baby Brought her Family Together (Millbrook Press). Just look at that baby on the cover? How could anyone resist this book?
“The Apes still live within us – closer to us in body and mind than any other creature.” I love this quote from field Biologist George B. Schaller who did the first study of mountain gorillas in the wild before Dian Fossey wrote her famous book, Gorillas in the Mist. Both of these scientists drew a much gentler and more complex picture of gorillas and their family life and helped to dispel the long-held myth that gorillas are violent by nature. Schaller’s words stayed with me as I followed, researched, and wrote the story of a mother gorilla named Nadiri at Woodland Park Zoo who walked away from her baby at birth but was able to bond with her over a period of a few months. To me, there were obvious parallels to humans facing the rocky road of new motherhood.
In the wild, young gorillas learn basic skills by watching family members around them. Zoos have realized through hard experience that mothering, too, is a learned behavior in the gorilla world. For years, zoos around the country cared for infant gorillas in nurseries away from the other gorillas believing it was the safest and healthiest way to raise them when humans had to intervene. Sadly, there were cases of several generations of female gorillas rejecting their babies because they had not been raised as infants by their mothers and had no examples of gorilla mothering to follow. Nadiri was rejected by her mother after a difficult birth.
I remember hearing Nadiri’s story of being raised by zoo staff for six months after her mother refused to care for her. At that time, I was writing a book about a baby elephant at the zoo, Hansa, and hoped to write Nadiri’s story. But I’m glad that I waited because the better (and happier) story about her happened after Yola came along.
When Nadiri walked away from Yola after the birth, the zoo staff made a new plan to care for the baby in a gorilla den next to her mother and surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of her gorilla family. This way she could learn the physical behaviors and vocal cues that gorillas use to communicate from the start. They also set up daily visits for Nadiri and her baby over several months to help the anxious, first-time mother become comfortable around her baby and confident enough to pick her up and care for her. Yola’s outgoing personality helped as she became mobile and reached out to her mother for attention. Nadiri also got surprising support from Leo, the adult male silverback in the group who took an immediate interest in the baby and showed leadership instincts he’d never exhibited before.
Within five months, Nadiri took charge of her baby. This must have been a proud and cathartic moment for the gorilla keeper and infant care specialist who had helped raise her twenty years earlier. Like caring dulas giving time and encouragement, they watched Nadiri become a devoted mother and her daughter, Yola, strengthen the bonds of her family group.
Clare Hodgson Meeker is an award-winning author of 12 published books for children including the Spring 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection Rhino Rescue! And More True Stories of Savings Animals, the Smithsonian Notable Book Lootas, Little Wave Eater, and Soccer Dreams: Playing the Seattle Sounders FC Way. Her new book, Growing Up Gorilla, published by Millbrook Press came out in September of 2019 with great reviews in School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.
Clare teaches writing in the schools and writing for children to adults. She is available for author appearances and skype visits and is a frequent speaker at writing conferences. Born in New York, Clare lives in Washington State and northern California with her husband and their cocker spaniel Jack. You can read more about her books and teaching at her website, www.claremeeker.com.