confidence or anticipation of a positive outcome.
Richard and I stopped treatment after two years, the most
di;cult I’d ever experienced; stronger than my sadness over our
failed cycles was the feeling of relief to be done with medication
and monthly disappointment. I thought sometimes about
Jamani and Acacia and Olympia, three female gorillas who might
remain childless for the rest of their days. They seemed content,
as far as gorillas in an enclosure can express contentment.
Then Jamani and Olympia both conceived and birthed their
babies, and the gorillas entered a new phase of life. Visitors who
had once breezed by the gorilla exhibit now stayed for hours,
snapping photographs and pressing their faces to the glass.
Later I learned what the visitors to the North Carolina Zoo
probably missed, and what the newspapers didn’t report:
something that happened just a few days after the second gorilla
was born, when no one, not even a keeper, was watching. Olympia,
newly postpartum and socially dominant, kidnapped Jamani’s
three-week-old son, Bomassa, one night and began caring for
him—nursing him, holding him chest-to-chest, and keeping
him away from danger — alongside her own newborn. Physically
larger than Olympia but ranked last in the three-female hierarchy,
Jamani made cries of distress, spun in circles, and ran from one
edge of the enclosure to the other. The keepers, who’d seen Jamani
cradling her stillborn baby just a year earlier, waited in anguish
to see if she’d take Bomassa back, but all she managed was some
halfhearted charging and hu;ng in Olympia’s direction.
Infant kidnapping is not uncommon among primates, who
take babies for a number of reasons: as a form of infanticide,
clearing the way for their own genetic success; to increase their
social status; to gain experience with caregiving; and sometimes
because they are just very interested in babies. Olympia had a
healthy infant who was not threatened by the birth of Bomassa,
and she was on top, socially. Why would she add to her
workload — so considerable that gorillas typically space births at
least four years apart — by adopting a second baby?
Through phone calls with zoos where Olympia and Jamani
spent their early years, Jesue and his colleagues determined
that both gorillas were influenced by the maternal behavior they
saw when they were young. Olympia lived at Zoo Atlanta with a
mother of twins, and must have thought that two babies —rare
for gorillas — were ideal. In San Diego, where Jamani was raised,
infant sharing was common and tolerated. They both expressed
patterns of behavior they’d already seen, images lodged not in
their genetic code but in the captivity-limited memories they had
of motherhood and family life. This is how an adult gorilla behaves,
we can imagine Olympia thinking as she loped around the
enclosure, two infants clinging to her chest. Surely she’ll give him
back, we can picture Jamani deciding, as her mammaries swelled
painfully with milk for Bomassa. That’s what mother gorillas do.
It took five days of watching and waiting for the gorilla keepers
to decide that enough was enough; they finally sedated Olympia
and gave Bomassa back to Jamani. She was able to nurse him
because they’d painstakingly pumped her milk using a human
breast pump in the days when they were separated, and she
responded to the return of her infant almost as if nothing had
“She’s a great mother,” Jesue told me, praising Jamani’s
patience with her son, her gentle discipline. We were standing
by the enclosure’s viewing area while Bomassa and Apollo,
toddlers then, wrestled and chased each other through the tall
grass. “Olympia is a great mother too,” he added, though he
acknowledged that she was also fairly permissive.
In my infertility support group, we sometimes joked about the
temptation to kidnap stroller-bound babies from their careless
parents, who texted or talked on smartphones with barely a
glance in our direction. Just kidding! we always clarified. Mostly.
Human baby-snatching, especially by strangers, is comparatively rare, but it makes good fodder for film capers like Joel and
Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, the story of a desert-dwelling cop
and ex-con who marry, discover they can’t have children, then
kidnap one of the Arizona quints, children born to wealthy owners of an unpainted furniture empire, to raise as their own.
Before Richard and I married, we agreed that Raising Arizona
was our favorite movie—funny, tender, slapstick— between us
we could recite most of it from memory. I watched the movie
again after I heard about the gorilla kidnappings, and noticed
some things I’d missed when I was younger. Ed, the policewoman
who tells her husband, Hi, that the world contains “too much
love and beauty” for just the two of them, is the embodiment
of the baby-feverish woman Rotkirch studied, posting photos of
babies round-faced, adorable, grinning, crying around her trailer.
But she isn’t the only one a=ected by baby fever —once Nathan
Jr. arrives on the scene, almost everyone is transformed by his
smiling, cooing presence. “He’s fine, he is,” Hi boasts, suddenly
paternal. When Hi and Ed finally return the baby, gru= Nathan
Arizona is so moved by the relief of seeing his son again that he
doesn’t call the authorities. He even o=ers the couple words of
advice. “You gotta keep trying,” he tells them, “and hope medical
science catches up with you.” If it doesn’t work, he adds, they still
have each other.
IVISI TED the North Carolina zoo again on a warm September morning, when Bomassa and Apollo were two years old and scampering independently around the enclosure. So much ad happened since their births that Jesue admitted feeling
stunned when he thought about this group’s reproductive history.
photograph l wIndy sawczyn p h