The Frontal Cortex

Gorillas at the Zoo

A recent scene at the Bronx Zoo gorilla exhibit:

On the left side of the enclosure, standing five feet away from the glass wall separating man and animal, is a big male gorilla. He crosses his arms as he gazes out at his adoring audience. The humans are thrilled – “He has such sensitive eyes!’ is a common refrain – but the gorilla looks a little bored, as if he’s tired of the crowds. Nevertheless, it’s a poignant moment of primate solidarity.

Another gorilla is crouching off to the right side of the grass. Her back is turned and, at first, it’s not quite clear what she’s doing. Her hand is cupped underneath her and she seems intently focused. After a few minutes, however, it becomes all too obvious that she’s shitting into her palm and then carefully picking through her shit. Occasionally, she finds something worth eating, which she pops into her mouth like candy. It’s fascinating to watch. It does, however, slightly deflate the mood. One boy begins shouting “Gross! She’s eating her poop!” . The female gorilla pays him no attention.

What I love about this moment is that it captures the complicated set of feelings I always have when I see primates at the zoo, or even in a science lb. There is, on the one hand, the recognition of common descent. As Darwin noticed, all primates share a common set of facial expressions. Looking into the eyes of a gorilla is like looking into the eyes of a child. And yet, there is this stubborn chasm, the mutual incomprehension of different species.


  1. #1 OftenWrongTed
    April 11, 2008

    Facial expressions are telling and amusing. For more try: EMOTIONS REVEALED, Paul Ekman, isbn: 029760757X.

  2. #2 Anne-Marie
    April 11, 2008

    Could be worse, when I worked at a zoo a couple of summers ago the chimps would regularly defecate directly into their hands and immediately throw it at me, it was like they could produce feces-bombs on demand…

  3. #3 Raphael Rosen
    April 11, 2008

    Excellent. I wonder what Dian Fossey would say.

  4. #4 james f. hill
    April 13, 2008

    a late post please: umami
    just caught your interview on umami. in 2004 i got both
    dentures and immediately lost a considerable amount of taste. your interview confirmed what i suspected at the
    time. a significant amount of taste comes from receptors
    located in the roof of the mouth.(the top denture covers
    the entire roof of the mouth, unfortunately.) to compensate,
    i began flavoring my food with garlic and other high flavor
    condiments. wondering if others have noticed the same.

New comments have been disabled.