“Little moments of brotherhood deserve our attention, even when they happen between a pair of great, big, hairy apes,” writes N.C. Harrison.
A couple of days ago, I got to go to one of my favorite places in the world for the first time in over a decade. The Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina has been operating as a sanctuary for animals and center for education about their lives and conservation in the Southeast since 1973. Although it is not as large as the sprawling, amazing Zoo Atlanta, Riverbanks has a collection of animals and programs that could inspire the mind of any school child in the vicinity towards a career in the zoological sciences.
The day was warm, although not blisteringly hot like it was the last time I had a chance to visit—more than one hundred degrees–and I was surprised, after trekking across the entire zoo and botanical garden areas at high speed that day that I did not die of a heat stroke. The animals were frolicsome, especially a trio of Siamang gibbons, dedicated to the art of showmanship, who howled and sang for the gathered people, and one particular African elephant, perhaps a little more puckish than we expect our pachyderms to be, who entertained herself by flinging clouds of dust at children who had come to visit on a field trip. I petted a skink named Gigi, fed a giraffe and spoke to a lovely girl who’d brought her tiny nephew on his first visit to this magical place. She had a laugh like Phoebe from Friends and agreed with me that baby Galapagos tortoises (two of which, just hatched in 2011, resided in the reptile house) should be referred to as “tortens” instead of “tuppies.”
Western lowland gorillas at the Riverbanks Zoo.
The best part of an already good day, however, was my visit to the exhibit featuring my favorite animals in the world, the Western lowland gorilla. These fellows are the world’s largest primate and owners of a magnificently singular, emphatic scientific name. There is no mistaking who you are, after all, when your driver’s license (if you had one, at least) reads Gorilla gorilla gorilla. I have always adored the big chaps because, on a certain level, I identify with them. Gorillas are enormous, weighing up to four hundred pounds, and appear fierce in aspect. Although the strength of a silverback male has never been tested, unverified reports depict them hoisting logs that are almost one ton in weight. A chimpanzee, which is smaller even than an average sized adult male, has a scientifically tested pull weight of 847 pounds, after all… how much more could an animal three times as large move? In spite of this great power, however, gorillas are peaceful creatures. They eat mostly vegetable matter, unlike their more carnivorous cousins the aforementioned chimpanzees and humans, and also, once again unlike chimpanzees and humans, are generally unwilling to engage in violence except in self-defense.
The day of my visit was the birthday of one of the gorillas in question, a fourteen year old male named Ajari. He had been given a box of fruit to unwrap and eat and was really enjoying it—both the fruit and the box. He was the center of attention, as the young docent of his station was informing everyone that it was his special day, and everyone fawned over him, taking pictures and talking. This did not sit well with one of the other gorillas, a slightly older male named Mike—not quite a silverback but nowhere near as coal colored as the young Ajari. He seemed rather distressed, even depressed a little, that the people were not crowded around him. Hey, his large, expressive eyes seemed to shout, I’m a handsome guy, too… how about some love over here?
He got it, although not in the form of human attention. The eldest gorilla in this bachelor troop, a thirty-one year old silverback named Chaka, ambled over to Mike and offered him a rough but still affectionate cuff on the back of the neck and a few quiet, almost sub-vocal noises that I could easily imagine as the soft words of one friend to another. I had witnessed something, a relationship among two animals from another genus who, through this behavior, were for a moment on the same wavelength as me. I had seen human males do the same thing, a seemingly rough gesture like a punch on the shoulder or even tap on the head (I played football and wrestled, don’t forget) which really spoke volumes about closeness, intimacy, love. Here was just one guy, seeing that his friend wasn’t having a great day and bonding in a perfect instant of brotherhood, a beautiful bro-ness. I didn’t exactly shed a tear—I had to keep up with my dad, who was already jogging out of the building and on towards the next great adventure—but I could have, maybe should have. I did mark the moment, though. Those little moments of humanity deserve it, even when they happen between a pair of great, big, hairy apes.
 This is not a bad thing. I adore Phoebe.
 Exceptions exist, of course, like the terrifying attack of Bokito the gorilla on a Dutch woman. It was probably the result of a miscommunication between the two rather than unwarranted aggression on Bokito’s part, however, given some of the circumstances of the attack.