Remembering Gulliver

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When I started at the Zoo 12 1/2 years ago (January 2003), I remember being excited about my new job and working with all the primates.  Our pair of white-handed gibbons had just had their last offspring, Elliot. I got to work with the gibbons a little bit at first, but after two years they became part of my regular responsibilities.

I knew the female, Jasmine, was very tactile, as she had been hand-raised. “Tactile” in primates means that keepers are able to touch them with our hands and look through their hair. It’s like when they groom each other, but keepers do it through the mesh in their off-exhibit holding area.

SB Zoo Gulliver white handed gibbonBut Gulliver was a “no touch” kind of gibbon.  During training, we would try to get him comfortable with us touching his feet. At first, if we got close, he would move his foot away. But I was determined to get him more comfortable around keepers.

My first goal was to get him to take food from every keeper that came through. He did it! It was great to see him take food from everyone. But if someone got too close, he might grab their shirt or hair.
He especially liked to test new keepers. Once I noticed that one of our newer keepers had a scratch on her head and asked what happened. She had gotten too close to Gulliver! But he stopped testing once he got comfortable with the newbies.

GulliverIn the last couple of years, we noticed Gulliver had started curling his toes on his left foot, so we knew it was due to his arthritis. He had arthritis for the past 7 years. He was definitely slower than Jasmine. During a training session one day, I was using his mirror as reinforcement for his other behaviors. I noticed during this that he was putting his left foot up and spreading his toes. We noticed over time that it seemed to help his toes uncurl more and he used his foot better. It was training but also kind of physical therapy.

Behind-the-scenes encounters were especially fun, because Gulliver would be the first one at the mesh to take grapes from our guests. That was something our guests would never forget: feeding a gibbon! Jasmine would eventually come over, but Gulliver was usually first.

Gulliver recognized his reflection in the window that was in the door where Gulliver and Jasmine shifted out every day. They had access to it while they were on exhibit. He liked to check himself out every day. Looking handsome, Gulliver!

Jasmine and GulliverIt was also great to see him with Jasmine, their older son Riley, and little Elliot out on the island back then. They were such great parents. They would all hang out in the trees together or take naps on the bridge. In the wild, gibbon offspring stay with their parents for 6–10 years, and then they go off to find a mate.

One of my favorite things was to watch Jasmine and Gulliver groom each other. He would do it for about a minute, while she would groom him for 5–10 minutes.  I would always tell our guests about that – most of the women could relate!

Guests were always amazed by how long the two were together, over 30 years. In the wild, gibbons are monogamous and stay together forever unless one passes away. They would look then for a new mate because they feel vulnerable by themselves. The thing I enjoyed the most was watching the two be both parents and partners. They still knew how to play together as a couple. They didn’t do it where you could see it very often, but when you did, it was a treat. There they were, in their golden years, and they would wrap their arms around each other and roll around on the ground while on exhibit or in their patio area. Jasmine would sometimes do somersaults. They would also hop around and tap each other like they were playing tag.

On July 19, 2016, we lost that handsome gibbon Gulliver.  Our hearts are aching, but knowing he had a full life at the Santa Barbara Zoo makes it easier.  He had a great mate to sing with and they had five offspring together. Both Riley and Elliot are dads now, so Gulliver and Jasmine have a bunch of “grandkids” and even five “great-grandchildren.”

Baby Gibbon 2002I know everyone will miss their duets that they would perform every day, usually twice a day.  He died just nine days before his 40th birthday, but making it to 39 isn’t too bad.

I want to thank my co-worker Veronica for giving him great care and love. I know the previous gibbon keepers Sylvia and Michele did as well.

No matter what animal we lose, it is like a tree falling.  Gulliver will be greatly missed by all of us.

Heather Leith

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Heather Leith is a Senior Keeper of Mammals at the Santa Barbara Zoo.