Teenage gorilla is getting too much screen time, Lincoln Park Zoo officials say

Zoo officials hope a buffer zone will cut down on Amare watching videos and looking at photos on visitors’ cellphones.

SHARE Teenage gorilla is getting too much screen time, Lincoln Park Zoo officials say
Amare, 16, sits in his favorite spot in the exhibit he shares with three other “bachelor” western lowland gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Amare, 16, sits in his favorite spot in the exhibit he shares with three other “bachelor” western lowland gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Amare, a gorilla at Lincoln Park Zoo, didn’t seem to notice last week when another teenage gorilla rushed him in a show of aggression that’s common among young males seeking to figure out who’s boss.

The 415-pound gorilla was glued to a cellphone.

Not his own, of course. But the smartphone of a visitor who’d been showing Amare pictures and videos through a glass partition.

“It seemed to almost surprise Amare because his attention was very much distracted,” said Stephen Ross, director of the zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

“No harm, no foul in this case,” he said.

But Amare’s cellphone distractions have grown more frequent in recent months.

Staff members have put up a rope line to keep visitors a few feet from the glass partition and will gently intervene — explaining the situation — if it appears Amare is still being distracted by bright screens.

“It’s probably a cyclical phenomena, the more he shows interest the more people want to engage in it. ... It’s something we’ve noticed and have talked about a lot in terms of a strategy to address it,” said Ross.

People stand outside a barricade and take photos of 16-year-old Amare.

People stand outside a barricade and take photos of 16-year-old Amare.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ross, who has teenagers of his own, laughed at the fact that he’s now battling screen time issues on two fronts.

“As parents, we think about we want to give our children choices, we want them to grow into adults, but every once in a while we have to sort of guide those choices for their good. And rather than maybe allowing them to sit inside and watch TV all day, maybe encourage them to go outside and interact with their friends. That’s something that I think all responsible parents think of and, in many ways, it’s similar to what we’re doing here,” he said.

“I’ve worked with great apes for 25 years now, and I’d say a lot of my parenting strategies have developed from that experience,” Ross joked.

Amare lives with three other male “bachelor” gorillas, all in their teens and completely separated from an enclosure that contains a family group that includes a dominant male.

Zoo officials don’t want screen time to take away from an important pre-adult developmental period when the bachelors are learning how to interact with each other and, in essence, be gorillas.

“It’s a typical sort of frat party, there’s a lot of playing, but there’s also some aggression and a lot of figuring out who’s the boss in that group,” Ross explained.

Could Amare become an easy target for bullying because he’s not paying attention to the other animals?

“It’s within the realm of possibility and something we really want to get ahead of,” said Ross, who also wants to avoid the possibility of Amare’s roommates becoming similarly engrossed by screens.

Amare is especially vulnerable because his favorite spot in the enclosure is right next to the glass partition.

“This is something that has sort of grown recently. More and more of his time he’s spending over there sort of looking to engage with these screens, and we have started to see behavioral changes,” Ross said.

“What we’re keeping an eye on here is that he doesn’t end up watching screens that the visitors are presenting him for hours on end. It’s more of a quantity issue than a quality issue,” Ross said.

The images and videos Amare watches span whatever might be on someone’s phone: selfies, family, pets, or freshly shot footage of Amare himself.

The buffer zone of a few feet that now separates Amare from his viewers will hopefully alleviate the issue. Ross doesn’t want to discourage people from taking pictures or filming videos of the gorillas but asks visitors to not try to distract the gorillas.

“If we can all sort of agree that we want to do what’s best for the animals, then we can sort of resist that desire to sit there and flip through pictures for an hour with him,” Ross said.

“We’re asking the public to partner with caretakers in future well-being and development of Amare into an adult gorilla.”

People stand outside a barricade Tuesday afternoon and take photos of 16-year-old Amare, one of four “bachelor” western lowland gorillas that share a habitat at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

People stand outside a barricade Tuesday afternoon and take photos of 16-year-old Amare, one of four “bachelor” western lowland gorillas that share a habitat at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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