CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Somerset Life today CLICK HERE

Bristol's Gorilla Island

13:05 30 June 2011


Bristol's Gorilla Island

Jacqueline Wadsworth meets a characterful family of western lowland gorillas who have provided the inspiration for an art project called Wow! Gorillas, to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Bristol Zoo.

This summer, Bristols streets will be dotted with life-sized gorilla sculptures to celebrate Bristol Zoos 175th anniversary. Decorated by artists, they will be on show from 4 July for 10 weeks in a project called Wow! Gorillas, which will also raise funds for gorilla conservation in Africa and Wallace and Gromits Grand Appeal in Bristol.

Inspiration for these colourful characters comes from the zoos own western lowland gorillas, a group of six who live together in the heart of Bristol on Gorilla Island. They provide a fascinating insight into the sophisticated way gorillas live together, with hierarchy and discipline at the heart of family life, followed by food, fun and relaxation.

First, some introductions. Head of the group is Jock, a 34-stone silverback. He has two wives, Romina and Salome, both of whom have borne him children, a six-year-old daughter, Namoki, and a son Komale, four.

The final member of the group is a young female, Kera, who was born in Barcelona and had a difficult start in life. She was one of twins, which are highly unusual for gorillas, but her mother couldnt cope so she was reared in an ape nursery in Germany, and joined Jocks family in 2008.

Jocks relaxed nature may have helped Kera be accepted into the family group, which was by no means a certainty when she arrived from Germany. Having been reared by humans she hadnt learnt gorilla etiquette and sometimes behaved differently to the rest of the gorilla family and she wasnt his offspring.

In the wild, silverbacks are known to kill youngsters who dont belong to them, and such aggression has also been witnessed in captivity. In May this year a silverback at London Zoo became aggressive when a female with a baby, which wasnt his, was introduced to his group. The infant later died.

Bristols dedicated keepers introduced their new juvenile gorilla very carefully, and gradually, to the family group. It took us about a year before Kera was with the rest 24/7, explained Rob Rouse, the zoos overseer of mammals. Before that, keepers sat with her during introductions to the rest of the gorilla group, before gradually moving away.

The silverbacks role is to protect his family, make sure theres enough food, and sort out arguments. If there is an argument, Jock will discipline the individual where necessary, keeping the whole group in check, said Rob, who chooses his words precisely punishment is not the right word.

For example, Jock has various methods of discipline which he may use if someone tries to pinch his food. Ive seen him mock charge Romina but not hit her, or he may run past and clap her on the back, said Rob. Its very unusual for him to have to do anything more than that but I have seen him actually sitting on her, saying look, Im not going to hurt you because youre in my family, and I like you, but I could if I wanted to!

Discipline is based on the islands pecking order, as decreed by Jock. He, of course, is top gorilla. Romina is the dominant female with Salome behind her. Then come his youngsters in order of age, and last is the most recent arrival, Kera. She is at the bottom of the groups social hierarchy, said Rob. She has to be careful where she sits and how she approaches the other gorillas during feeding times. It sounds unfair but its the natural structure of a gorilla group. Im sure that as she becomes sexually mature Jock will start to appreciate her more.

Its a different matter, however, when Kera, who is seven in August, plays with her peers. With the youngsters shes top dog because shesoldest, said Rob. All three play well together, in pairs or as a trio. Namoki can be quite rough but if Kera wants to discipline her she must be careful because if Jock spots her she may get disciplined herself.

Kera also gets on well with the two adult females a good move. The ladies are less likely to react if you can get in with them, said Rob. They also back each other up during disputes.

Young Namoki has grown up as the apple of her fathers eye, but as shes got older shes become a bit of a madam just like her mother. Namoki is a little monster for want of a better word! laughed Rob. Shes full of beans and character everyone likes her, but if ever theres trouble shes either in the middle of it or sitting a little way off pretending its got nothing to do with her.

Jock has always loved playing with Namoki and hes now a great playmate for his young son too, with tag a favourite game. It often ends with the youngster being enveloped in his fathers great arms and tickled without mercy. Thats the sort of guy Jock is a gentle giant.

When hes not eating (food is one of the gorillas main interests) or involved in family business, Jock likes nothing better than to chill out. Between meals of fruit and veg he can often be seen indoors, atop his nest-shaped perch, having a doze, bottom lip drooping to reveal a soft pink gum.

Wife Romina is a great people-watcher, which Rob suggests is because her sight was restored in 2002 with pioneering surgery to remove cataracts. After the operation she was fascinated by new people. She picked out children in bright clothes and watched insects on the floor that shed never been able to see before.

Salome too has benefited from medical science, giving birth to Komale in 2006 after fertility treatment. She is a very caring and protective mother and also highly intelligent, says Rob. He illustrates this with the following example. When the gorillas are given coconuts as a treat, Salome is good at opening the ones no one else can crack. But rather than provoke an argument by stealing the uncracked ones, she waits until the others have lost interest then she takes them off to a hiding place where she cracks them all for herself.

Does some of this sound rather familiar? Perhaps what goes on at Gorilla Island isnt so different to life in most ordinary family homes.

To find out more about Bristol Zoos Wow! Gorillas project visit


Shop with us at Great British Life

More from Out & About

Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

From personalised rugby balls and quirky gifts to rugby shirts, get ready for the world’s best rugby tournament with perfect presents for sport lovers

Read more
Monday, September 14, 2015
Climbing the hill near Bossington. Photo Chris Spracklen

If you’ve harboured thoughts of stepping out on the Coast Path to tackle that scenic stretch you’ve always wanted to experience, then now’s the time to put that plan into action.

Read more
Monday, September 14, 2015
Bentley Flying Spur outside The Bath Priory Hotel

MARK G WHITCHURCH goes from visiting exotic butterflies in a Somerset village, to an English luxury hotel in the city of Bath

Read more
Monday, September 7, 2015
Kitty seen here riding the grey pony

The Shetland Pony Grand National is a much loved British tradition seen by thousands at events up and down the country. LUCY JOHNSON meets a young aspiring jockey from Somerset

Read more
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Have fun with the whole family while exploring the area. Photo J Bewley/Sustrans

WENDY JOHNSON celebrates 20 years of the National Cycle Network by taking a gentle summer journey along a fruity Somerset route

Read more
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
The old pavilion has lots of history behind it. Photo Alain Lockyer

With the County Ground at Taunton replacing old with new, KERRY MILLER looks back over more than 130 years when the much-loved ground was slowly taking shape

Read more
One of many spectacular views over Exmoor that can be seen from this walk

Enjoy a slice of quinettessential England and a welcome cup of tea on a walk past a medieval chapel, 17th century forge and views of the Vale of Porlock

Read more
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Mid-Somerset Show

Sheep shearing, showjumping, vintage vehciles and cheese awards are amongs the highlights in this long-running popular one-day event

Read more
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Britain's longest-running flower show

There’s beauty, melody and aroma this summer as Britain’s longest-running flower show returns to Taunton

Read more
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Day Fourteen, Countrywide Great Tour (Copyright The Tour)

Later this month the Countrywide Great Tour will be joined by record breaking cyclist and adventurer Mark Beaumont

Read more
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Curry Mallet

Curry Mallet’s celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta have been hailed as a great success.

Read more
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
A geophysical survey is taking place near the church in Curry Mallet

A vibrant Somerset community has produced a splendid variety of art and craftwork to mark its links to one of the country’s most important historical events

Read more
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Day six of the Countrywide Great Tour. (Copyright The Tour)

In the first week of the charity cycling event, riders have enjoyed North Wales, the North West of England and the South west of Scotland, clocking up 807km of coastline

Read more
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Puxton's donkeys enjoying ice lollies

A South West tourist attraction is keeping its visitors and farmyard animals cool as soaring heatwave temperatures rise across the UK.

Read more

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Somerset's trusted business finder

Job search in your local area

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search