A personal tribute to the Jacksonville Zoo’s iconic silverback gorilla

A personal tribute to the Jacksonville Zoo’s iconic silverback gorilla

I owe my writing career to Quito, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ greatest animal ambassador, who passed away last week.
In August 2009 I walked up to the observation window at Quito’s enclosure and found the iconic gorilla squatting at the far end with his back to me. He was clearly distracted by something, but I couldn’t tell what.

Then, methodically, he lifted his left leg a few inches off the ground, held it steady for a moment and put it back down. A few seconds later he repeated the motion with his right leg, slowly lifting it into the air, holding steady, then letting it rest on the ground.

I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. But it turned out that Quito was the trickster. He next jerked his left arm high above his head and held it there for a few beats before letting it drop. The right arm followed with a slower movement.
At this point, I was going great ape. Then, the mystery was solved, sort of.

The majestic silver back deliberately turned sideways and I could see on the other side of a barred barrier a petite blond woman, dressed in a zookeeper outfit, sitting on a stool. I was completely riveted as she reached ever so slightly through the bars and touched his arm, then gave him a treat. She made a motion, said something, and, to my total amazement, he lifted off his haunches and turned to present his other side to her.

The two continued their clearly practiced choreography for five more minutes, with Quito willingly presenting body parts as his partner gently made requests, then rewarded him for his cooperation. I was delighted when he allowed her to put a Q-tip into his ear, but the real kicker was when he opened his mouth wide to receive a tongue depressor.

I quickly cornered one of the roaming zoo educators and got the scoop: Quito and his partner, Tracy Fenn, were part of the zoo’s gorilla training program. My first thought was, “Why don’t more people know about this?”
That evening I went home and sent off an email to an editor at the Florida Times-Union proposing a Quito story. I had never published anything in my life but I figured if a 500-pound gorilla and a small, gentle woman could communicate like that, than I could tell their story – and it was worth telling.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself sitting within a few feet of Quito as Tracy put him through a similar routine to the one I first witnessed. But it was more than just tricks. There was clearly a trusting relationship there, built upon years of nurturing words, gentle gestures and tasty treats. And it was designed to keep Quito healthy by getting him used to being touched and lightly prodded in case they needed to give him a shot or treat a wound. Turns out most animals at the zoo are in some training program, but it was particularly important for Quito because he had an inherited heart disease.

It was the same disease that zoo officials speculate took his life at age 31.
I published the article about Quito, Tracy and the gorilla-training program and then went on to cover several other zoo stories. I got to watch him train again, and once when I was in the ape house covering a bonobo birth, he made us all laugh by poking his head through a peephole to see what all the fuss was about. But regardless of where my pen may take me in the future, Quito will always be my first. And, of course, you never forget your first. It is ironic that he died of a bad heart because he always made mine feel very good and he will forever hold a place there.

Read Quito and Tracy’s story:
Note: Zoo guests are invited to hang farewell messages to Quito on the bamboo located on the path between the Range of the Jaguar and the first Great Apes window.

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