Out There: OK Gorillas, No Belching During the Pledge of Allegiance

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1998

Out There: OK Gorillas, No Belching During the Pledge of Allegiance

Bringing a little jungle indoors, to a fresh generation of primatologists
By Tim Cahill


Tim Cahill speaks on Outside Radio Click to listen
I am not a gorilla scientist," I told the Saint Mary's third-grade class, "but when I went to Africa, I learned something about gorilla behavior that no one knew until that day." I suspect the real scientists I was visiting in Rwanda talk about my discovery even now, almost 20 years later. And when they talk about it, I bet they laugh.

Which, I explained to the third graders, doesn't make it any less of a discovery. Just because people laugh about it.

"Can you tell the class what it is you discovered?" the teacher, Miss Larson, asked. She was tall and blond and impatient with the concept of suspense.

"Well," I said, "I hurt my knee playing football in high school. Now it pops out of position every once in a while. I fall down and scream, and I don't even know where I am, because it hurts so much. That's how I made my discovery. I contributed to the science of biology because I was such a bad football player."

The third graders weren't, I knew, particularly interested in my knee problems. I'm often invited to speak at local schools about my various travels, and I accept these invitations because I think it's a way of giving back something to the community. Also, I get to advise kids to belch at the dinner table and tell their parents that it is science.

"Do you guys want to see some pictures of gorillas?" I asked.

They did, and said so at the top of their little lungs. I asked Miss Larson to turn down the lights, and I flipped on the slide projector.

"OK," I said, "here's the first gorilla." The on-screen image was that of a rather handsome human male wearing a photographer's vest. The children squealed with laughter.

"It's OK to laugh at this man," I said. "He's a photographer."

Nick Nichols, a National Geographic wildlife photographer, had given me the set of slides to show in schools.

The first real gorilla up on the screen was a frightening portrait: a head-and-shoulders shot of an adult male, mouth open in what appeared to be a scream of rage. White teeth — canines the size of small carrots — stood out against the black face.

"Scary, huh," I said. "But it's really not, because that's what it looks like when a gorilla yawns."

And I was off on Phase One of my standard grade school gorilla lecture. They're not scary monsters at all; in fact, they're very gentle. They don't eat humans; they don't even eat meat. I showed pictures of gorillas eating bamboo and nettles. The kids, like all kids, sat there staring at Nick's photos with their mouths agape. On the grade school slide-show circuit we like to wow 'em with charismatic megafauna.

I showed pictures of several gorillas together and explained that the animals live in family groups of two to 35 or more and that, most of the time, the oldest and biggest male, whose back is silver, is the boss. Silverbacks stand about five-foot-eight and weigh as much as 400 pounds. During the day, the gorilla family will eat, rest, and move on until late afternoon. Just before it gets dark, they build a nest, almost like big bird's nest, and that's where they sleep.

I showed a picture of a blond-haired human male standing in the rain, taking notes.

"That man," I told the students, "is a scientist. His name is Conrad Aveling. He gets to study the gorillas every day, rain or shine."

To get a job like that, I said, you have to go to school for a long time and study a lot. This makes you a very precise and literal-minded person, so that if a journalist visits you and writes a story about the gorillas, you will be obligated to write him a long letter and tell him all the things he got wrong. If, for instance, the writer described a gorilla as being twice his size, the scientist would say: "This is incorrect. The gorilla may be twice your weight, but he is not 12 feet tall."

"Field scientists," I told the third graders, "are a lot like Miss Larson, but their clothes are dirtier and they swear a lot."

After the slide show, it was time for Phase Two: I asked the shyest of the girls and the most obstreperous of the boys to assist me. The girl would sit in front of the class, in Miss Larson's chair. She would be the gorilla. The boy would be the scientist. He would try to approach the gorilla and learn about its behavior. If he did anything wrong, anything at all, the gorilla would just go away and never come back. I think this prepares boys and girls for the realities of later life. Boys more than girls, perhaps.

"It is sometimes hard to find the gorillas," I said. "You have to remember where they were the night before and start from their sleeping nests. Then you track them through the grass and bushes." Sometimes, I explained, you can smell them before you see them. The silverback has an odor like skunk and vinegar, only very faint. And then you may see them moving through the shafts of earlymorning light that falls through the trees. They walk bent over, on their knuckles, and look like bears shambling through the sun. When you see them, you should fall to the ground and approach carefully.

My eight-year-old scientist began crawling up the aisle toward the gorilla in pigtails sitting in Miss Larson's chair.

Locate the silverback, I advised. Make sure he sees you. Don't get between him and any of the babies, because he will try to protect them, and then he could hurt you. Look at the silverback's face. It reads just like a human being's face. If he frowns at you, go away.

You should also know how to say some things in the mountain gorilla language.

"The gorilla 'hello,'" I said, "sounds like this." I made my voice phlegmy and hoarse and then breathed out twice, in a kind of gentle growl. "It means, 'Hey, I don't want to fight or hurt anyone's babies.' Scientists like Mr. Aveling call that sound a double-belch vocalization." I encouraged the kids to work on their belches and to demonstrate the science they'd learned at the dinner table that evening.

As the boy scientist crawled forward, belching loudly, I advised him to keep his head down. Watch the silverback's head. Wherever it is, yours is lower. If you stand above him, he thinks you want to fight. Scientists call that an aggressive posture.

The gorilla will be watching your face, and you can smile at him, but don't show your teeth. Gorillas who show their teeth often want to fight. Look at the silverback, but keep dropping your eyes. Gorillas are like humans: They get mad at people who stare right at them for a long time.

Mr. Aveling, I said, taught me all those things about gorillas, and he was very strict. He said I should observe "proper gorilla etiquette" at all times. And it was true: If I minded my manners with the gorillas, I could sometimes sit near them and watch their behavior for hours. Sometimes I even exchanged double-belch vocalizations with silverbacks.

When the animals wanted me to go, they frowned at me and said another important gorilla word. "It's called a cough grunt," I said, "and it sounds a little like a train just starting up." I made a series of quick soft coughs in the back of my throat. "That means, 'Go away.'"

The gorilla in Miss Larson's chair did a pretty good cough grunt and the boy scientist crawled backward down the aisle. There was applause all around.

And I was into Phase Three: Only 650 mountain gorillas exist today. That's all. (Some scientists think the population in Uganda's Bwindi National Park are not mountain gorillas, but a species of the more populous lowland gorilla — or a unique subspecies. If so, there are only 320 or so mountain gorillas alive.) These numbers haven't changed much in the last couple of decades.

It is tempting, at this point, to dramatize the mountain gorillas' plight by setting up a morality play of good guys and poachers, but the real problem facing the gorillas is loss of habitat. Virunga and Volcano National Parks, where the gorillas live and are protected, are a mere 149 square miles. In the aftermath of the genocidal wars in Rwanda, over 700,000 returning refugees have flooded into the area near the base of the mountains. These people want land to farm. Families must be fed.

And yet the forests of the Virungas act as giant sponges, feeding the streams and rivers during the dry season. Destroy the forest for farms, and everyone starves during the next drought. It's a vexing problem, with no easy solutions, and what I tell the children is that the surest way to kill the gorillas is to destroy their habitat. It's true for any animal.

My friend the photographer, Nick Nichols, wanted to show the habitat problem in his pictures. One day we were standing on a very steep hillside, watching a family of about nine mountain gorillas who didn't know we were there. There were three of us — me, Nick, and Conrad Aveling. It was about noon, the hottest part of the day, and the animals had just finished feeding for the morning. The silverback was sprawled out on his back, bouncing an infant off his rather considerable belly. A female lay with her head on the male's thigh, dozing in the sun.

I felt as if I were staring down into Eden. And yet, if I lifted my gaze, I could see down past the periphery of the park, right into Rwandan farmland, which rolled bare and treeless up to the very edge of the forest. That was the picture Nick was trying to get: the gorillas at rest, the threatening farms close below.

The girl in pigtails would be the gorilla. If the boy scientist did anything wrong, she would just go away. This prepares boys and girls for the realities of later life.

I was just standing there, watching him work, when I shifted my weight, slipped on some moss, felt my knee pop and heard myself saying, "ah-ah-ah-ah-ah." Clutching my knees to my chest had the effect of turning me into a human bowling ball, and I began rolling faster and faster down the steep and grassy slope.

I've tried to see this from the gorillas' point of view. Here you've just had breakfast, and you're ready for some quality time with the kids, followed by a nap. Then there's this hideous noise: ah-ah-ah-ah-ah. And when you look up, the foliage is parting in a rapid downhill vector. Whatever the horrible thing is, it's coming right at you.

The gorillas fled in all directions as I rolled directly through them and came to rest against a low shrub. My first coherent thought was that I had breached every single rule of gorilla etiquette. I sought to apologize to Conrad Aveling.

"Well, yes," he said. "On the other hand, a lot of us have wondered what would happen if a human charged a group of gorillas."

And that, I told the third graders, is how playing football very badly can lead to important scientific discoveries.

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