We like to picture our closest animal relatives as gentle giants, but like any other animal, gorillas can be threatening when approached the wrong way. Footage taken in 2015 of a charging silverback gives us a fascinating insight into the inner world of gorillas.
Kevin Cave and his family were out at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska. The family was watching the gorillas, and Cave was videotaping the enclosure, when one of the gorillas looked Cave straight in the eyes. Then, the gorilla charged at the glass, slamming itself against the reinforced barrier rest in front of Cave and his family.
When the visitors returned after running away, they noticed a long crack in the glass. Dan Cassidy, the zoo’s spokesperson, says that visitors weren’t in danger: the pane is made of three layers of glass and acrylic, and Kijoto (the gorilla in question) only cracked the first layer.
But the question remains: what prompted him to rush the glass?
The first possible reason is interpersonal dynamics in the gorilla group.
Cassidy explains that the three teenage male gorillas in the enclosure had been fighting over who was going to be the alpha male. When male gorillas get to be around 20 years old, they start producing more testosterone and becoming more aggressive
The three gorillas had just been in a fight, and Cassidy believes that Kijoto was trying to establish his dominance by pounding on the glass. He mentioned that the gorillas will often hit the glass to prove dominance because of the loud noise it makes.
The second possible reason is right in the video: right before the gorilla charges, you can see the young Cave girl pounding on her chest.
Gorilla communication is primarily nonverbal, but in many ways, it’s almost as complicated as human language. When gorillas challenge each other, there is a proper sequence of events that involves hooting, tearing up vegetation, and sideways running.
As one of the last stages in this fight display, gorillas start beating their chests. So, in gorilla language, Cave’s daughter was essentially shouting “You wanna go?” while giving him the middle finger with both hands. Small wonder Kijoto thought she was looking for a fight!
The incident isn’t unusual: silverbacks charge at each other and watching humans very frequently. But it is a fascinating example of how complex gorilla social structures are – and an important reminder not to approach these majestic creatures without understanding them.