Michelle Valois says a typical day at the Denver Zoo is a lot of fun and a lot of work.
Valois, a primate zookeeper, has been at the Denver Zoo for 17 years. Her job is to take care of the orangutans and gorillas in their separate exhibits in the Primate Panorama habitat.
The Denver Zoo is home to six critically endangered Sumatran orangutans and five western lowland gorillas. But the zoo is home to many more primates including golden lion tamarins, aye-ayes, ring-tailed lemurs and mandrills.
“In our primate department we have a really big collection,” Valois said. “I think it’s something we are really proud of and excited to have that many different kinds of primates to work with.”
Valois fell in love with primates while working as an intern at the Denver Zoo and helping with the revamp of the primates department and the construction of the ape building.
“For me it was always kids or animals, which I feel like have a lot of similarities,” Valois said. “When I got introduced to primates, I knew I had found where I needed to be. And I’ve stayed here ever since.”
The interaction the zookeepers have with the apes is one of the draws for Valois.
“I love the different personalities they present,” she said. “I love getting to know those different personalities. And they’re not all easy to get along with. Part of what I take very seriously is how I can help each of these species. How I can make the best possible life for them in zoo life.”
Valois said paying attention to the quirks of each animal is very important to their care. Specifically how the gorillas don’t like to get their hair wet. Or how the bachelor pair of young gorillas, Curtis and Charlie, are complete opposite personalities.
Curtis, the older bother, is pretty mellow and likes quieter interaction, she explained, while Charlie is a bit of a wild guy.
“It’s neat to see these two gorillas who are full brothers and grown up together to have totally different personalities,” Valois said. “When I come around the corner, Charlie is often waiting for me to play.
“He likes to throw hay and beat on his chest and have his back scratched.”
While the gorillas are high-energy, social animals. Valois said the orangutans, who live on the other side of the building, are more solitary animals and prefer a low-key environment with the exception of Eirina, an 11-year-old female, who is incredibly playful.
“She loves to swing,” Valois said. “She takes sheets and make hammocks for herself. She ties knots. She has what we interpret as a great sense of humor.”
Both the gorillas and orangutans have indoor/outdoor enclosures and a living space out of the public eye. This, Valois said, is important because while the apes acclimate to the colder Colorado weather, they’re not really made to be in the snow. Still, the big yards where the apes play outdoors are a point of pride for Valois and her team.
A new climbing structure was recently built in the orangutans’ outdoor enclosure to replace trees that are dying.
“We’re really lucky at Denver to have these yards with natural trees and opportunities for the animals to climb, especially for orangutans,” Valois said. “These guys are made to be in trees. In a natural environment they would not come to the ground, not like ours do here. So having options like trees or like our new climbing structure is important to give them new ways to climb, to find food, places to take naps … Though a generous donation we were able to put up the new structure. The keepers and the orangutans really like it.”
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