Royal Oak ― Sunday was the last day of a going-away party for three 20-something bachelors who have spent two decades together at the Detroit Zoo.
Chipua or “Chip,” Pendeka or “Pende” and Kongo-Mbeli or “Kongo,” three silverback gorillas who are half-brothers, are moving to another zoo, officials said.
Hundreds came to see them before they left, despite weekend thunderstorms. Signs made by zookeepers posted on the barriers of the exhibit read, “Good luck,” and “We’ll miss you boys.”
They are headed, zoo staff said, to another zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Visitors could watch the gorillas with the staff that gave the gorillas “special enrichment treats” and calmed the worries of visitors who were concerned about the gorillas’ transition to a new home.
“We had a couple of little kids come up to me earlier and they wanted to make sure that one of the gorillas, Chip, was going to be safe and he was going to be taken care of the next place that he was going to. That’s her favorite gorilla. She was very emotional,” said Aaron Jesue, a zookeeper that’s been working with gorillas for over 17 years.
“Her mom had asked me all the questions because she couldn’t talk. She was wearing a gorilla T-shirt. She had a stuffed gorilla,” Jesue said.
Jesue has known the three gorillas for nearly a decade and described them as “the best ever.”
“We know what kind of an impact that they made on our lives as keepers and we get that unique bonus of being able to work with them every single day and have special relationships, so knowing that that also affects the visitors, and that they are invested in their well-being just as much as we are, it’s been really great to kind of also help us out as we’re going through this emotional transition,” Jesue said.
Mary Chris Chapp and her husband were among zoo members who went to say goodbye to the three and snap photos of them on Sunday.
“We wanted to make sure that we get to see the brothers before they left,” said Chapp, 57, of Sterling Heights.
The Chapp family are longtime zoo visitors, estimating over 60 visits, and said the gorillas were one of their kids’ favorite animals to see.
Chapp said the gorillas were fun to watch and she enjoys the information the zoo provides about them. She said she will miss seeing the gorillas, and she and her husband may consider visiting them at their next destination.
Chip, 26, Pende, 25, and Kongo, 24, are a bachelor group, which happens in the wild when male gorillas get older: they go off and find other male gorillas around the same age to work with, which is why they will travel to the next facility as a group.
“Their 20 years as a bachelor group is one of the longest running ones in the entire country, so we’ve been able to help other zoos understand about bachelor behavior and understand about what it means to have gorillas grow together for 20 years … so it’s great that we’ve been able to teach other zoos and help other gorillas out,” Jesue said.
The announcement on Facebook on June 26 that the gorillas would be moving sparked thousands of reactions and questions from the public: where would they go? Would they stay together? Where are they going?
Kongo, Chip, and Pende have been “trained to make the transition experience as comfortable as possible,” said Sarah Culton, the zoo’s communication manager.
The Detroit Zoo would not disclose when or where the gorillas will go.
According to the Detroit Zoo’s Facebook post, “the move was recommended by the AZA’s Gorilla Species Survival Plan, a cooperative management program ensuring the sustainability of healthy, genetically diverse and demographically varied captive animal populations.”
Culton said the Great Apes of Harambee habitat will remain, and, after renovations, another gorilla family will join the Detroit Zoo.