It’s all happening at the zoo

Family man: Frank, the San Diego Zoo’s youngest gorilla (shown here at 8 months), was raised with the troop instead of being taken away to a nursery.

Family man: Frank, the San Diego Zoo’s youngest gorilla (shown here at 8 months), was raised with the troop instead of being taken away to a nursery.

A gorilla, less than 2 feet from my nose, is staring me down.

I’m atop a roof at the San Diego Zoo, where the senior gorilla keeper, Nate Wagner, has unlocked a skylight window, advising that I not stand too close. He opens the large glass and a pungent, though unexpectedly agreeable, smell escapes. I take a knee and peer inside.

Instantly, I lock onto her eyes: A several-hundred-pound female gorilla stares back at me.

Her name is Azizi. She’s hanging from a thick rope, left hand wrapped around one of the ceiling’s bars. Her face is soft but her eyes penetrate. She’s striking.

Then, the rope wiggles and into view pops Frank, her 15-month-old son. He’s curious as ever, fidgeting upward to the skylight to check out what’s happening. But his inquisitiveness is fleeting, as he shimmies back down to his dad, an imposing silverback gorilla named Paul, who’s chowing down leafy greens on the ground.

Frank is a very special lil’ guy: Typically, baby gorillas in captivity are taken from the troop to a nursery, where they’re raised by humans and later reintroduced to the family. Frank, however, was reared with the troop; he played with zoo employees and slept in a crib, but was always in the presence of his gorilla kin.

Zoo experts had to feed Frank by bottle, too, because Azizi, who was hand-raised, didn’t know how to nourish him. This posed challenges—they had to work in shifts and check on him throughout the night—but after eight months, Frank and his family made their first public appearance, which was a success.

Now, Wagner and his co-workers still feed and weigh Frank daily, but otherwise he’s one of the gorillas.

Interestingly enough, McDonald’s Ray Kroc was instrumental in bringing San Diego its apes. In 1984, he donated a private airliner, which flew a plane loaded full of gorillas and orangutans from England to San Diego, a voyage now known as the “Great Ape Shipping.”

Twenty-five years later, the gorillas—and all the species at the zoo—are more vital than ever. It’s a Wii and Xbox 360 world, and kids have less and less interaction with nature, an infrequency that will hinder ecological and conservation efforts in the coming years.

But the San Diego Zoo proves that this doesn’t have to be our fate. And that Sacramento doesn’t need basketball stadiums or rock arenas to be “world-class.” Their zoo, like ours, is minutes from the heart of downtown—but where ours is underfunded, theirs thrives, millions attending each year and experiencing nature firsthand, which is life-altering.

I do believe it. I do believe it’s true.