A Day in the Life of a Houston Zoo Gorilla

Written by William Weeks, Ashley Kramer & Meredith Ross

I am Ajari, a 14 year old male.  I am the youngest member of the Houston Zoo bachelor group.   I live with 30 year old Chaka, and 23 year old Mike.

Ajari sitting

Yawn……Is it time to wake up already? I want to sleep in more. Oh NO, the lights are on….Well, that’s fine, I can lie in bed a little bit longer. . That means I have a few minutes until breakfast comes. My keepers always say something to me in the morning.   What does “Good morning, sunshine!” even mean?

Oh, finally breakfast is here!  The juice is actually pretty tasty today. My favorite color is the red juice (fruit punch),   and it’s not my favorite when they give me the blue juice (blue crush). Of course I still drink it!  They always ask me to finish my juice before I get the rest of my breakfast. It has stuff in the juice that is good for me, apparently. Things like supplements and vitamins, y’ know, the good stuff.

Ajari lying on rock

After the juice we always play this fun game. They ask me to show them some part of my body, like my shoulder or hand, and then they give me some amazing fruit. This is called training, which my keepers do to keep up on their husbandry. They do this so that if my friends and I ever get cuts or scrapes, we know how to show our keepers where it hurts. So, I just take my favorite fruit:  strawberries, and if I had to choose my least favorite fruit, because let’s be honest what fruit is bad fruit, I would say cantaloupe. But it’s always fun because I am so smart I can show them almost any part of my body they ask for. I will do anything for some fruit. Once all of the fruit is gone they give me some lettuce, and primate biscuits to chow down on while they clean my yard. My yard can be kind of gross, because, well, even though I try and keep it clean for them I somehow always get it messy when I am with my two friends.


We, my friends and I, always can tell when our keepers are ready to let us outside because they start to unlock all of our tunnel doors and start getting ready to open our outside doors. They always send me out first, then after me it’s the big boss man Chaka, followed by my best friend Mike. While were all outside we all get to eat and have fun with these extra goodies that they scatter around for us to forage for.

Oh look, why do those people that feed us always think they are going to go unnoticed when they are with the guests?  We can see them from a mile away; I know their faces like the back of my hand. But, oh well, this yard is so much fun! We get items that will take us all day to work on, these tubes that have gotten extra frozen stuff inside of it. And, there are tasty plants to eat, as well as red river hogs to look at! We always spend the rest of our day eating, napping and playing.

Ajari at meadow window

When it starts to get really hot outside, they start to bring us inside. When we come inside Chaka goes first, then Mike, and then finally it is my turn.

When we get to come inside we get to have some more fruit, and play that fun body training game again. They always have our bedrooms full of fresh bedding, and new browse, and some small food items that are just so delicious but it takes a while to find all of them with our nesting material hiding it everywhere.  After another nap, we get even more food, which is awesome and then its bed time again, which is the best part of the day for me, because I love to sleep.

King of the Hill (Ajari)

Being a gorilla at the Houston Zoo is pretty wonderful. Who could beat this life?

Looking Back with Mary Ann Chambers

From the small fence to the now size of 55-acres, the Houston Zoo has grown exponentially not just in size but in the number of species that call the zoo home. Starting out with a small collection of a few species to 6,000 animals of 900 different species, Houstonians like 75-year-old Mary Ann Chambers can recall a time when the zoo was only a fraction of the size of what it is now.

“I can remember as a young child going to the zoo either with my mother or great uncle, and it was always such a treat to see what I thought then was a large variety of animals,” Chambers said, who is a resident at St. Dominic Village and was born in Roscoe, TX. “Of course, I know now from the early ‘40s is that it was probably much smaller than what it was now, but it’s been a while since I’ve been out there.”

Mary Ann Chambers. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

In January of 1989, after being accredited by the then-known-as American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), the zoo initiated a public admission fee of $2.50 for adults and 50 cents for children. In 2000 the zoo opened the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and continued to improve throughout the years with the addition of various species such as the komodo dragons and jaguars. And in July 2002, the Houston Zoo became a private non-profit organization with a 50-year lease and operating agreement from the city.

“What impressed me most was how much it grew,” Chambers said. “When I was a little girl, I would go to the zoo and it would seem big and yet we’ve had such wonderful additions to it so to me that’s always been important.”

The 1990s also saw the $1.2 million renovation of the Janice Seuber McNair Asian Elephant facility, as well as extensive renovations of the Aquarium and Tropical Bird House. Many of these improvements were financed through the popular Zoo Ball parties.

“What was significant to me were the elephants because they’re such large animals and yet they move with so much grace,” Chambers said. “My great uncle loved animals and going to the zoo as a child was such a treat, so I think that’s where I got my love for animals. True, animals are not like humans, but we all age similarly.”

Click here to read about what other residents had to say.

Looking Back with Annette Reynolds

Vosswood Nursing Home resident Annette Reynolds is not an average Houstonian. 94-year-old Reynolds was born in 1920, and her father even read George H. Hermann’s will; if the name sounds familiar it’s because he was responsible for presenting a very famous piece of land to the City of Houston – Hermann Park!

Reynolds remembers visiting the zoo in its early days during the 1920s. For her family, going to the zoo was a Sunday treat.

“The first time I went, that I can recall, would be when I was seven years old in 1927,” Reynolds said. “My mother used to say, ‘Now, we’re gonna get dressed because we’re going to the zoo tomorrow!’ Oh, my brother and I would be so excited. It’s helpful to a city to have a beautiful zoo, and I know many people who visit Houston and they make it a point to visit the zoo.”

Formerly referred to as the Hermann Park Zoo, it was a city-operated zoo and free to all visitors until 1989. The first staff member was a German zookeeper named Hans Nagel, who quickly built up the collection and became the first zoo manager/director.

Conveniently located in Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo brings fond memories for residents who would also hold special events at both the zoo and the park, such as Reynolds.

“As a child, my birthday parties were held in the front part of Hermann Park,” Reynolds said. “I remember my son’s birthdays at the park, and we’d have them at the zoo too. I know that we couldn’t live without Hermann Park.”

(From left to eight) Annette Reynolds pictured with her friend, Jean Whitaker.
(From left to right) Annette Reynolds pictured with her friend, Jean Whitaker.

The Houston Zoo has come a long way since its early days and has even more ambitious plans for the next decade. None of this would have been possible without an incredible staff, board and volunteers to implement all these changes and renovations.

“Of course, back then it wasn’t nearly the size as it is now,” Reynolds said. “But I saw a lot of improvement at the zoo growing up; it was very small but the zoo has been done up really nicely. The whole appearance of the zoo has improved tremendously, and I think they [the staff] have done wonders with the zoo.”

We think so too, Mrs. Reynolds!

Click here to read about what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with Lynn Gillespie

One common memory that residents can recall is the change in size of the Houston Zoo – the zoo has vastly grown from that first bison and continues to develop new changes and exhibits such as such as the Gorillas of the African Forest (opening Memorial Day weekend). Born and raised in Houston, 72-year-old Lynn Gillespie grew up not too far from the zoo and her childhood love for the zoo continues to this day.

“Our zoo is spectacular,” Gillespie said, who is the administrator for independent & assisted living at St. Dominic Village. “I take my kids to the zoo all the time. In fact the last time I went was Zoo Lights in 2013 with my daughter, and it was fabulous.”

Lynn Gillespie. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Lynn Gillespie. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Gillespie said when she was a child there was not an aquarium or a bird house, but that all changed when our third and longest tenured director John Werler joined the Houston Zoo in the late ‘50s. During Werler’s time the zoo added a small mammal house (later expanded to become Natural Encounters), a tropical bird house, Children’s Zoo, rhino exhibit, large cat exhibits, vet clinic, and aquarium. The Brown Education Center was dedicated in 1988, a gift from the former Zoological Society of Houston.

“During my time, I want to say the most significant things happening at the zoo were the opening of the bird house and the bear exhibits,” Gillespie said. “Just things opening at the zoo is what made a splash on the papers since it was so small at the time more so than now.”

In December 2010 the zoo opened the first phase of the African Forest immersion habitat. This six-acre, $40 million project includes chimpanzees, white rhinos, giraffe, and kudu antelope as well as a large African-themed restaurant, gift shop and trading post.

“What I remembered most as a child were the monkeys,” Gillespie said. “As a child I think I remember there only being one or two different species of monkeys. I think the zoo has done such a great job on the educating the public of what area and what region of the country each animal comes from.”

In 2000 the zoo opened the $6.5 million John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and continued to improve with the addition of several other species such as the okapi and spectacled bear.

“I remember when the zoo brought in the petting zoo, and that must’ve come when my children were little because we used to have birthday parties out there,” Gillespie said. “That was the most significant thing to my children, but I do remember spending a lot of time at the seal pool and looking at elephants and hippos with them too. It was just always a lot of fun going to the zoo.”

Click here to see what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with JoAnne Driscoll

Very few people can say that they were a member of three important zoo organizations. Born in Pittsburgh, 79-year-old JoAnne Driscoll, a resident at Treemont Retirement Community, was an active member on the docent council, raised funds as a Zoo Friend, and served on the Zoological Society of Houston. It is easy to say that Driscoll holds a special place in her heart for the Houston Zoo.

“My kids grew up at the zoo,” Driscoll said. “I had grown up with the zoo in Pennsylvania, and been out of a zoo for several years now. It was great to be in a city to take my daughter to the zoo, and it was always a favorite place of mine. I’ve got a long history with the zoo, and it’s always been one of my favorite things.”

Driscoll recalled that as a member of the docent council for 11 years, one of her favorite activities was to visit the contact yard located in the Children’s Zoo. She was a Zoo Friend for 15 years and a member of the Zoological Society for 11 years.

“I really do think that the time and days I spent associated with the zoo was really some of the happiest times I’ve had in Houston,” Driscoll said.

JoAnne Driscoll. Photo courtesy of Treemont Retirement Community.

From the small fence to the now size of 55-acres, from city-operated to privatization, and from small collections of a few species to 6,000 animals of 900 different species, it is easy to say that the Houston Zoo has come a long way since that first bison. Over the years these changes are what Houston residents recall the most, which is one of many things the zoo has to celebrate for its 100th year anniversary in 2022.

“The zoo was very different from when I was taking my kids there,” Driscoll said. “I was there when the zoo went from a city zoo to a private zoo, and the best change is that there are more animals because I love that we’re getting a group of gorillas, but there is also more money to feed and take care of all these animals.”

In July 2002, the Houston Zoo became a private non-profit organization with a 50-year lease and operating agreement from the City of Houston. This public/private partnership has proven to be mutually beneficial for everyone and allowed the zoo to undertake the most ambitious scope of improvements in its entire history.

“One of the biggest changes from the transition was when the zoo was focusing primarily on education and conservation, and Rick Barongi from Disney was brought in as the director and reintroduced the element of entertainment,” Driscoll said. “I think in this world we live in, it’s important to educate people but to also make it entertaining to stick with them, so that they can come back and remember everything. I think that it’s been a good thing.”

Click here to check out what other residents wanted to share.

Looking Back with Charlotte Taylor

St. Dominic Village resident Charlotte Taylor, who is 88 years old, may not be Houston-born, but she and her husband shared a love for the zoo just like any native Houstonian would. Born in Beaumont, TX, she recalled some of the fond memories she has of the zoo, and spoke about how her husband was involved with then-director John Werler.

Charlotte Taylor. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Charlotte Taylor. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Coinciding with all the zoo improvements and renovations in the 1960s and ‘70s was the arrival of the zoo’s third and longest tenured director, John Werler. A well-known celebrity in town and appearing in weekly TV shows with all his favorite reptiles and other critters, Werler and his Swedish-born wife, Ingrid, ran the zoo as a family and were loved and respected by all. He was one of the longest serving zoo directors, retiring in 1993 after 30 years.

Werler was a talented individual who published his definitive book on Texas snakes just before he died in 2003. Taylor recalled a time when her husband and Werler were close colleagues.

“My best friend Ingrid was married to John, the then-director at the time,” Taylor said. “I think it was the snake house that brought us to the zoo because my husband loved snakes and he and John Werler had been in charge of the snakes at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Once, my husband found a snake and brought it to John. Before you know it, my husband’s name was on a plaque for contributing.”

The 1950s saw a boom in construction as the zoo added a primate house, bear moats, feline house, hippo pool, giraffe house, waterfowl pond, sea lion pool and concession area. The first major indoor exhibit building was the reptile house in 1960.

“I really liked walking down the reflection pool, it was beautiful,” Taylor said. “But my kids really liked to go look at the snakes with their dad. My husband was going to night law school at the University of Houston, and on the weekends it was zoo-time.”

Taylor’s daughters plant a “chocolate” tree at the Houston Zoo. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

While Taylor has not had the ability to visit the zoo in recent years, the same passion her and her husband had for the zoo is passed down to other generations within the family.

“My youngest grandchild is eight, and for the last four years I know his father has taken him to the zoo every Sunday,” Taylor said. “Just the two of them.”

Click here to check out what other residents wanted to share.

A Look Back into the Past with Houston Residents

To think that it all started with a bison named Earl that was donated by a traveling circus in 1922. A fence was then erected in Hermann Park to house various assortments of snakes, birds, and alligators purchased by the City of Houston.

The Houston Zoo will turn 100 years old in 2022, and while we still have several years to go, you can only imagine all the stories and memories that go with that kind of a milestone. With all these vast changes, improvements, and new exhibits such as the Gorillas of the African Forest (opening Memorial Day weekend) over the years, it is pretty easy to say that the zoo has come a long way since that first bison.

I had the chance to speak with several Houstonian residents, both native and from other cities, and they all had special things to say about our wonderful zoo.

“I would look to my husband and say ‘We got to do this again soon,’”81-year-old, Boston-born, St. Dominic Village resident Ann Palmeira said. “You always looked forward to a ‘next time’ every time you visited the Houston Zoo.”

Ann Palmeira. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.
Ann Palmeira. Photo courtesy of St. Dominic Village.

Click on the blogs below to read about some residents’ fond memories from visiting the Houston Zoo.






Plants, Pollinators, and Pansies

Springtime is finally here, which means that vibrant and colorful plants and flowers that we love are finally in bloom! During this time, several species of plants are starting to blossom throughout the zoo, including those in the butterfly garden, the carnivorous plants, Chinese Fringe trees, and Ground Orchids just to name a few – it’s no wonder that the horticulture team at the Houston Zoo spends almost 600 hours a week keeping all of the plants healthy and lively across our 55-acres.

Azaleas can be seen all around the zoo!
“During the spring season we get a lot of people asking about the Texas Mountain Laurel because it smells like grape bubblegum,” horticulture supervisor Anna Land said. “Also, people always love taking pictures in front of the azaleas when they are in bloom.

Azaleas can be easily spotted throughout the zoo – over by Cypress Circle and next the Reflection Pool. Land said that among other guests’ favorites include milkweed during the monarch season and many guests ask about the Jacaranda tree when it blooms, which is the next “big” plant that guests can look forward to. It commonly blooms in May (while some bloom as early as April) with trumpet-shaped deep blue or lavender clusters of flowers.

Monarch Butterflies

In addition to tending to the general landscape, the horticulture team also pays close attention the needs of the animals that call the zoo home.

“We do try to match up animals and native plants that are from that area of the world. For example, we predominantly use African plants in the African Forest,” Land said. “We aren’t always able to stick strictly to that because growing conditions are not always the same, so we’ll choose something that grows well here, but looks similar to a plant native to the animals’ home range to give the overall look we want.”


By the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo, near the Bug House, guests are met with a small colony of blooming carnivorous plants such as the Venus fly trap and the Pitcher plant. Named the “Children’s Zoo Carnivorous Plant Project,” this project was initiated by horticulture team lead Ariel Sklar last year to engage young bug enthusiasts about the relationships between bugs and plants.

With more than 740 known species of carnivorous plants, it’s no wonder that this species developed in many different ways to fill the different needs within the ecosystem. For example, some carnivorous plants have developed symbiotic relationships with other insects and reptiles that benefit both species to benefit the overall health of their habitat.

Pictured above: Pitcher plant
“It ties in nicely with the Bug House and the butterfly garden,” Land said. “We chose a location where we could do talks about pollinators and the diverse interactions that insects have with plants and the importance of those interactions.  Now that we have plants in an area that use insects in two very different ways is really interesting for kids and makes it easier to get them interested in bugs.”

Important to note about pollinators is that they account for up to 30 percent of what we eat – maple syrup, chocolate, and ice cream just to name a few foods that we all know and love! So how can you help? It’s as easy as buying organic products or creating a wildlife-friendly backyard. To learn more about pollinators, visit https://www.houstonzoo.org/saving-wildlife/texas-conservation/pollinators/.

From the Wild: A Close Partnership All the Way From Rwanda

Written by: Valerie Akuredusenge

Hi! My name is Valerie Akuredusenge, the Program Director of Conservation Heritage – Turambe, (CHT). I grew up in Gakenke District in the Northern Province of Rwanda. I began my journey in wildlife conservation as a tour guide, leading others through the dense rainforests of central Africa. I facilitated influential conservation experiences for tourists by bringing them up close and personal with some of the world’s most amazing wildlife.

As my love and appreciation of this wildlife grew through those experiences, I knew I needed to share this excitement with the local communities living alongside animals like mountain gorillas.  I joined Art of Conservation in 2006 and became a leader in conservation education. I have taught over 2,800 children in communities bordering Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park about how to maintain healthy lives for the continued prosperity of the local communities and gorilla populations as well. Additionally, I am creating the next generation of Rwanda’s wildlife conservationists by inspiring local students to care about their natural resources, and act on behalf of wildlife and habitats.

CHT Staff, Left to Right: Innocent, Eric, Oliver and Valerie. Photo credit of CHT.
CHT Staff, Left to Right: Innocent, Eric, Oliver and Valerie. Photo credit of CHT.

In 2013, I became the Program Director of Conservation Heritage – Turambe, an off – shoot of the very successful international non–profit organization called Art of Conservation that worked in Rwanda for over 6 years conducting conservation and health awareness programs in Musanze District, Rwanda.

Conservation Heritage – Turambe is local non-profit organization based in Musanze District in the Northern Province of Rwanda. CHT works with local communities bordering Volcanoes Natinal Park home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Since 2013, CHT has worked as a local non-profit organization in Rwanda. In Kinyarwanda, Turambe translates to “let us be sustainable”.   All 7 of the CHT staff members are Rwandan and committed to continuing the important and inspiring work that was done by AoC previously.

The goal of CHT is to educate local communities near Volcanoes National Park to ensure they live in harmony with mountain gorillas and their habitat. CHT believes that disease transmission between mountain gorilla populations and human populations is a major threat to gorillas. To make sure the lives of mountain gorillas and that of human populations next to the park is in balance, CHT conducts year – long after school conservation and health awareness classes in communities near the Volcanoes National Park, home to mountain gorillas.

Students living close to mountain gorillas learn about this critically endangered species. Photo credit of CHT.
Students living close to mountain gorillas learn about this critically endangered species. Photo credit of CHT.

To be able to do it, the CHT team and I utilize different methods to deliver conservation and health messages to local communities.  Art is a great tool we use to help spread our messages and also make our program more unique.

CHT Artist Eusebe teaches local kids about mountain gorillas using artistic methods. Photo credit of CHT.
CHT Artist Eusebe teaches local kids about mountain gorillas using artistic methods. Photo credit of CHT.

Through our classroom programming, CHT teaches over 200 local schoolchildren about conservation and health. These conservation lessons instill in students an understanding and compassion of nature and wildlife. Local community members are also encouraged to stay healthy because the health of wildlife is linked to that of people.

CHT students learn staying healthy messages like how to wash their hands and how to brush their teeth. Photo credit of CHT.
CHT students learn staying healthy messages like how to wash their hands and how to brush their teeth. Photo credit of CHT.

CHT’s work also improves local livelihoods through different initiatives. We conduct tree-planting activities to prevent soil erosion, provide animal habitat and create beautiful green space. We also donate water tanks to schools to ensure water availability.

Additionally we do community outreach through our local schools by conducting conservation and health awareness classes to remote schools.  We host annual events including the 3k Gorilla Fun Run to increase gorilla awareness with communities and partners and we host annual tennis tournaments to raise awareness of CHT and mountain gorillas, and how to stay healthy.

At the very end of our year long after school programming, we host a very big event – Parents As Partners’ Open House – to share with our partners, local authorities, parents of kids and participants of our program what we have achieved during the year and celebrate!

To achieve our goal, we also partners with different conservation organizations including the Houston Zoo. One of the Houston Zoo missions in the protection of mountain gorillas is to make sure they are safe in wild and partner with conservation organizations.  In this context, CHT is really honored to be have Houston Zoo staff here for a one-month visit.  Houston Zoo staff is incredibly helping my staff and me in capacity building where she has been assisting, coaching, teaching and training and inspiring us on how best we can improve our way of planning and improving our documents.

Together with her expertise, the CHT team including me have gained a lot of experience in strategic planning, evaluation, writing documents, and many more.  In addition to capacity building, Houston Zoo has been a very close partner of CHT. They have been sponsoring CHT’s staff salaries, project development, raising funds for CHT and marketing the project. We are very fortunate to be with their staff member, Martha, who is really making us strong readers in conservation to be able to reach our goal.  My staff and I cannot wait to use what we learnt from the Houston Zoo.

New Weekend Parking Option This Spring

During spring break, the Houston Zoo offered additional parking for all its guests and animal enthusiasts. Now the additional parking is offered Saturdays & Sundays through May 31. The lot is located at 7100 William C. Harvin – Entrance 35. Parking is $6 per car, but the shuttle is free and runs continuously from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to the zoo. Early birds: park in the lots outside the zoo to enter at 9 a.m., right when doors open.



Free parking is available outside the zoo’s main entrance on Hermann Park Drive. These free parking lots are part of Hermann Park and are not owned or operated by the zoo.

On busy days, these lots can fill quickly, but more parking may be available in other Hermann Park lots. For more information about other parking areas and directions to the zoo, visit https://www.houstonzoo.org/plan-your-visit/hours-and-directions/.

Remember that every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild. So we hope to see you soon!

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If you're headed out to Bayou Greenway Day tomorrow, stop by our Zoomobile and say hello! We'd love to see your smiling face and talk to you about wildlife and how you can save animals in the wild.

Bayou Greenway DayMarch 24, 2018, 11:00amTidwell ParkBayou Greenway Day will be full of family-friendly activities, games, live music, FREE food and more. Get to know Halls Bayou Greenway and explore all the fun outdoor activities you can enjoy there.


🏈⚽️ Sports activities with the @[51931216313:274:Houston Texans] and @[20105631149:274:Houston Dynamo]! Mascots, cheerleaders, coaching drills, enthusiasm, and fun for the whole family.

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⚾️First 3,000 attendees will receive a FREE @[91703305430:274:Houston Astros] cap!

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🍭🐇 Easter egg hunt at 2 p.m.

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Houston Zoo shared Chron.com from the Houston Chronicle's live video.
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Today, we took snakes (and our snake expert!) over to the Houston Chronicle to talk about why these amazing animals are awesome. Check it out! www.facebook.com/chroncom/videos/10157028891332814/

Chron.com from the Houston Chronicle
Today our friends from the Houston Zoo are at the Houston Chronicle to show us a few of the snakes from their collection and to answer some of your snake-related questions. As the weather warms up many Texans will be seeing more snakes in the wild and they have some tips on safety around them.

READ MORE: www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/houton-snakes-texas-venomous-poisonous-color-12288...
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