Oliver steps out of his pen and looks warily at the stranger who peers through a window on the outer wall that surrounds him. He waits patiently for the stranger to leave and when he doesn't, Oliver takes off across the grass in a fast gallop. His face is angry and threatening. As he nears the window, Oliver reaches down and -- without breaking stride -- grabs a stick and tosses it at the window as he dashes by. He runs another 40 feet before he stops and looks back.
The stranger is still there.
Oliver had every expectation that the stranger would be gone. And why not? If you're a 376-pound gorilla and you decide to scare a human by charging him, you expect that human to be scared. And to take the opportunity to flee.
Oliver stands on all fours and ignores the stranger. Instead, he gazes across the field at the nearby mountains. Then, suddenly, Oliver springs into another full gallop. He bounces as much as he runs, propelling himself with his long and gangly arms, moving almost sideways. As he races past the window, he leans in and violently raps the glass with his huge knuckles. It doesn't break, but the crack is loud enough that it sounds like it should.
Once Oliver is again by his pen, he peers over his shoulder and looks back in what appears to be exasperation, as if he's thinking: You're still here?
Jane Dewar, who has watched the scene with delight, laughs. "He's checking you out," she says. "Come on, I'll introduce you." She walks behind the 15-foot-high concrete wall until she reaches a steel door. It leads into a little anteroom separated from Oliver's pen only by steel mesh. She's met there by Kelly Maneyapanda, one of Oliver's keepers. Dewar asks if she can give the gorilla some frozen blueberries. Maneyapanda nods her approval. "Don't be offended if he stays on the other side of the pen," Dewar says. "He can be shy around people he doesn't know."
But Oliver senses no threat, so he's no longer concerned with the stranger. Instead, he scoots right up to the mesh, sits down and his huge fingers pick up the berries from a steel bar where Dewar has placed them.
Up close, Oliver is a striking animal. He has just turned 19, the prime of his life. He has a patch of reddish hair on the top of his enormous head, which rests on an equally large neck. His fingers look amazingly human, and yet his arms are longer and thicker than a human's legs.
Oliver is also deaf. He was at the zoo in Memphis, living in a group with other males. But the group fell apart because it can be difficult for male gorillas to live together – too much testosterone per square foot.
Traditionally, zoos have had to separate gorillas such as Oliver that don't neatly fit into their outdoor habitats. And because of space limitations, they're often housed in less-than-ideal conditions. But Oliver is among the fortunate ones; nestled in the mountains about 90 minutes north of Atlanta is a one-of-a-kind facility called Gorilla Haven that was built with gorillas like Oliver in mind. It is a place that few outside the primate world know about because it's not open to the public.
For some gorillas, it's a way station until a better situation is found. For others, it may become their home. "Gorilla Haven is an outstanding idea," says Jan Rafert, the curator of primates at the Milwaukee County Zoo who worked with the legendary Dian Fossey in Africa. "In terms of quality of life for the animals, it is indispensable. They are taking a lot of pressure off zoos."
What is Gorilla Haven? Essentially, it's the Island of Misfit Toys ... for gorillas.
Jane and Steuart Dewar live in a century-old farmhouse that was built by the original settler on the 324-acre tract of land they own in Morganton, just northeast of Blue Ridge.
She is quick to tease when her dogs run up to greet a visitor. "There's a dog in the house named Bwindi [pronounced "Wendy"] and she thinks she's a princess," Dewar says with a grin. "She won't bark if you tell her she's the most beautiful dog in the world." Her house and yard are filled with 23 cats and 13 dogs, all rescued strays. She has named every pet, even the dozens of brightly colored koi in the large pond next to the house.
Dewar, 54, is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. She kicks her shoes off when she sits in a chair that is positioned next to an oversized gorilla stuffed animal. Where she is animated, gesturing and laughing at herself, her husband is British formal with a dry sense of humor. Steuart Dewar, 60, is a big man, with graying dark hair and a beard. But when he sits down, he is dwarfed by the painting of a gorilla's fiercely gentle face behind him. It is a portrait of a gorilla named Joe, who happens to live, quite literally, in their back yard.
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