Hercules unchained

All the workers at the Dallas Zoo know that Hercules has an attitude problem. You can see it in his menacing eyes, which are always alert whenever a human is near, in the way he cautiously patrols the habitat, and in the permanent scowl on his leathery face. Of the 10 lowland gorillas in the Dallas Zoo's Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center–an award-winning exhibit and the zoo's crown jewel–Hercules undoubtedly is the most uptight.

A 34-year-old male that was caught in the wild when he was young, Hercules barely tolerates the four other gorillas in his troop. He frequently fights with the feisty young male gorillas, Jabari and Patrick, on whose limbs he has inflicted nasty gashes. Hercules doesn't socialize any better with Timbo and Maguba, the two females in his troop. He is separated from them at night so he won't hurt them, and he shows no interest in mating with them. In fact, he shows no interest in breeding, period. He tried once many years ago to mate with a gorilla no longer at the zoo. She bit his hand, and that was that.

In contrast, the zoo's other troop lives together in relative harmony. Fubo, the dominant male silverback of this troop, plays well with the other gorillas and has sired three offspring. Last January, he and Aquilina had a baby boy, Jake, whose toes Fubo loved to tickle when Jake was an infant. Jenny and Demba, two other adult females in the troop, dote on Jake like indulgent aunts.

Fubo–"the Joe Friendly of the gorillas," as one zoo worker calls him–likes to clown around with the keepers, engaging them in a game they call "mean gorilla." He lunges at them from behind the mesh window in the gorilla building, then, when they act startled, he puts his hand over his mouth as though he's laughing. Other times, he'll come up to the mesh partition and make faces at the keepers, shaking his head and limply dropping his lower lip to expose his pink gums.

But there's nothing playful about Hercules. When night zookeeper Mike Matthias checks on the gorillas, all 10 invariably wake up, but Hercules is the only one that charges at Matthias from inside his cage. Whenever people are around, especially women, Hercules stands on his feet, bangs his chest, and howls, O-OO-OOO-OO. His eyes follow visitors around the room, suspiciously watching their every move.

"It's like he's frustrated you're there," Matthias says. "The other gorillas are much more relaxed."

Despite the gorillas' relatively docile nature, none of the keepers would ever second-guess how any wild animal might react under stress. And they agree on one thing: Hercules is the animal they would least like to meet face-to-face.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a glorious day, unseasonably warm and sunny, perfect for a family outing. By 9 a.m., cars were piling into the zoo parking lot off the Interstate 35 service road at Marsalis Avenue and visitors were lined up at the gate. The keepers, who already had been at work for two hours, were finishing feeding the animals and cleaning their cages before putting them on exhibit.

Debbie Reid, one of two regular keepers who worked with gorillas, called in sick that morning. The other keeper was off on Saturdays. So the job of feeding and shifting the gorillas from their holding pens to the exhibit area and putting new hay in their pens fell to Jennifer McClurg, a 25-year-old keeper who normally worked with the smaller primates.

A three-year zoo employee and graduate of Texas A&M, McClurg started out in the children's zoo then worked her way up to caring for gorillas. A likable woman with long, silky hair and a self-effacing manner, McClurg three months earlier had been transferred to Primate Place, a refurbished habitat for monkeys in Zoo North, the old, scruffier section of the zoo.

Rod Froelich, a volunteer keeper aide, assisted McClurg this morning. A chiropractor by profession, Froelich had volunteered for several years at the zoo and eventually was assigned to work exclusively with the gorillas, which he adored. Though the job consisted mainly of cleaning up gorilla poop, it was still a prestigious position and a dangerous one.

By 9 a.m., McClurg and Froelich had finished cleaning the outside of the gorilla habitat, a sprawling greensward covered with 45 species of plants indigenous to the gorillas' native Africa. The realistic environment, part of the $32 million Wilds of Africa addition to the zoo, was a welcome alternative to the cold, barren cages that once housed the gorillas. Opened in 1992 with much fanfare, the gorilla habitat won the outstanding achievement in zoo design award that year from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. Even the gorilla's holding pens, where they are kept at night when they come off exhibit, were carefully designed with the animals' welfare in mind. Much larger than the gorillas' former cell-like cages, the holding pens were built with planters and natural material for the floors, instead of concrete, making them easier on the animals' feet. In addition to four bedrooms and two community rooms for the great apes, the building has a series of overhead mesh walkways to give the gorillas additional space and access to all parts of the complex.