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We asked gorilla keeper Laura Klutts some of your burning questions about Kayembe, Mokolo, and being part of the gorilla team.
Laura Klutts – I grew up here in Ohio in North Canton.
I went to high school at North Canton Hoover High School and then got my bachelor’s degree from The University of Akron. My Bachelors of Science is in Biology with a double specialization in animal physiology and zoology. After graduating, I interned at Caldwell Zoo (Tyler, TX) and Wildlife Safari (Winston, OR). From there I was a seasonal keeper at Akron Zoo (Akron, OH) before taking a permanent position at Kansas City Zoo (Kansas City, MO). After 6 years in Kansas City, I was a keeper at Cameron Park Zoo (Waco, TX) specializing in primates before coming to Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 2019. I am currently in my 17th year of being a zookeeper.
I was hired in August of 2019 – so I've been working with our gorillas for almost four years.
I fell in love with a gorilla when I was four years old at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. My parents are originally from there and so when we would visit, we would always go to a zoo! I had such a memorable moment of a large silverback sitting with his back against the glass and every now and then giving me a “silverback side-eye” and glancing at me from time to time. You know in my world that meant we were besties and my love of animals would only grow from there. That’s why I love seeing little kids interact with our gorillas like that – someday they might end up in my shoes… Even though I wanted to be a veterinarian, I quickly learned that I wanted to be the one working day to day with the animals. It’s so funny to me that my career led me to work with other apes like orangutans and chimpanzees, but when the opportunity came to have the chance to apply for a position to the closest zoo to my immediate family that houses great apes in Ohio, it would lead me to working with gorillas – the reason I became a zookeeper!
They each have their own personality! It is so fun to watch each individual and see how characteristics of themselves come through their actions. Especially when the gorillas accept you as one of their people – they are more willing to let you watch them play and be silly or have special moments like when they snuggle with Kayembe!
Gorillas are super strong and impressive even though they are a great ape and very similar to us humans. This means that we will never share space directly with them. So coming up with creative ways to move them around or interact with us through a mesh barrier like the side of their exhibit sometimes can be challenging. That’s why our relationship between us and them is so important. It is something that we work on every day. My husband laughs at me sometimes because throughout the year, it is pretty possible that I will spend more time with the gorillas than with him!
It’s hard work and I wish I could just “play” with the animals all day. Having the privilege to take care of our gorillas means that I become their personal maid, chef, partner and advocate. The direct care is the majority of my job, but doing that safely is always at the forefront of a zookeeper’s mind. It takes a ton of mental energy to double check the security of areas and security during interactions. Even though making sure I give the gorillas the absolute best care can be stressful at times, it also has so many more rewards that make me love my job every day.
Positive reinforcement training is absolutely my answer. Even though we don’t speak the same language – training is a way for us to communicate with each other and have a “conversation”. Let’s be honest, there is no way I’m ever going to get away with telling Mokolo what to do! I am a guest in his house, with his family,and so I can ask him to do things but then I give him awesome treats in return for working with me. A great example of this is him voluntarily taking his flu vaccine every year. It’s totally his choice and it’s something I really want him to get to keep him safe and healthy, but no one really loves getting their shots from the doctor. So through making that experience super positive, it makes it not so scary when I can train him that letting our vet tech give him his flu shot means getting a piece of fruit like a couple of grapes.
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