Saturday, January 29, 2011

Monkeying around: We tell the story of how Ambam the walking gorilla took his first steps to global fame


Standing out: Ambam strolls in his enclosure at Port Lympne this week

Tearing around in his nappy, draining his bottle of every last drop, he could be any other bouncy baby boy — but for the fact that he’s a little on the hairy side. And extremely strong. After all, how many infants have ripped the cat flap off the back door?

Yet, perhaps these enchanting family snaps provide vital clues to a story which has gripped the world in recent days — Ambam, the walking gorilla.

For here he is, 20 years ago, as a baby. And, as his adoptive mother discovered in a recent emotional reunion, the 34st titan still has very happy memories of his days as an honorary human.

Earlier this week, a film clip hit the internet showing Ambam walking round his home at Port Lympne Animal Park in Kent.

Since then, more than a million people have marvelled at this mighty silverback gorilla patrolling his enclosure like a ­proprietorial squire.

Ambam does not merely stand up like other apes do from time to time. He goes for a stroll. ‘British Gorilla Walks Like Man,’ declared Canada’s Montreal Gazette. Ambam is now big news from Malta to Adelaide.

Putting his feet up: Baby Ambam snatches 40 winks on Jo Wheatley's sofa, which he commandeered as his bed

Jo recalls that he learned to eat off plates and drink from a cup. Initially, he slept on the floor of the lounge with Colin beside him for comfort, before progressing to the sofa.

And he was walking even then. ‘From the outset he was a very unusual gorilla. He has always been adept at standing on his hind legs. He often preferred to be fed standing up, sucking on a bottle,’ says Jo.

It has been suggested that the reason Ambam walks like a Grenadier guardsman is that he is simply copying human beings.

Bouncing baby: Complete with nappy, a one-year-old Ambam is bottle fed by his doting 'mother' Jo

Jo explains that there are several other factors at work, quite apart from his life with her. After all, he is not the first ape to have been reared by humans.

‘He was different from other hand-reared primates because he already knew he was a gorilla when he came to live with us,’ she explains. ‘Not only that, but he also knew he was a very special gorilla because his mother and father were the dominant gorillas in their family group.

‘But the year he spent in our cottage must have had an effect on him — it made him an extra-special chap.’

Ambam even developed a fondness for ­television. ‘We showed him a video of himself hanging onto his mother soon after he was born and he was transfixed,’ recalls Jo, now a mother of two herself.

‘He would often sit down and watch ­television with us at night and learned how to turn it on and off himself.’

Look at me, Mum!: His first steps, with a little support from Jo

He was a genuine part of the family. The couple took him on days out to a local nature reserve in a baby sling and he enjoyed bicycle rides in a baby backpack.

Fellow shoppers were astonished when he accompanied them to the local supermarket.
But childcare arrangements could be tricky. ‘Like having a baby, caring for him was a 24/7 job,’ she recalls, ‘and he quickly started behaving like any human toddler.

On one occasion I was on my way out to work and Ambam didn’t want me to go. He chased after me crying as I went out the back door and ripped off the cat flap.’
Ambam was, at least, spared one or two of the more conventional baby rituals. ‘We didn’t put him in the bath,’ says Jo.

‘Gorillas don’t really like water, but if one of us was in the tub he would come and stand up on his hind legs alongside and splash and bat the water.’

Little monkey: Ambam loved to steal other people's food

Mealtimes were unusual, too. ‘He was always trying to steal what we were eating. It was often a nightmare. Like toddlers he also enjoyed play fighting, although his rough and tumble was much rougher.’

At the end of his year with Jo and Colin, Ambam was returned to Howletts before moving to its sister zoo, Port Lympne.

And last year, Jo took her children, Molly, 11, and Jonathan, eight, to see how he was getting on. It was the first time she had seen him in nearly 20 years. ‘Ambam sat very ­quietly at first, but then he came right over,’ says Jo.

‘When we went to walk away he started to call and cry, which is really unusual for an adult gorilla. It was an upset kind of cry. I’ve no doubt he recognised me. And I felt quite emotional, I felt so proud of him.’’

Garden games: Intimate and playful with his human family

source: dailymail

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