LINCOLN PARK — For 34 years, Kowali the gorilla has been a fixture at Lincoln Park Zoo.
So when she recently was transported to a zoo in Tennessee, the move was bittersweet for zoo officials.
Kowali, who had just become a grandmother in November to baby Nayembi, was moved to the Knoxville Zoo on June 27 to provide social stability to a new growing gorilla troop there.
She will provide company to Wanto, a male silverback who had lived alone for the past 15 years at the Kansas City Zoo.
"He was at the top of the list for socialization," said Kristen Lukas, who chairs the Species Survival Plan committee for gorillas nationwide. "After being alone for so many years, we really wanted the opportunity for him to live with other females."
Kowali was born at Lincoln Park Zoo in 1978 and is the mother of the zoo's female gorilla Rollie and bachelor male Amare.
"You are managing gorillas that have complex social lives, so you are adding that to everything else. And you are managing people who love the gorillas and are constantly involved in every aspect of their lives," said Sarah Long, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Population Management Center.
The center is the central species management hub for about 220 accredited zoos nationwide.
Long and her staff manage 600 species across the zoos and have made transfer recommendations for 100,000 animals.
She said decisions on gorillas are some of the toughest.
"The local community knows the names of the gorillas, so if they have to move to another community it's a difficult decision," Long said.
Of 342 gorillas in 50 accredited zoos nationwide, 31 were recommended for transfers through the 2011-2012 plan, according to Lukas.
Those recommendations don't always involve a long trip, as was the case when Lincoln Park Zoo moved young gorilla Azizi from the main group to join three other males in a "bachelor group" at the zoo.
When deciding which gorillas should move, scientists who work on the species survival plan look at the animals' family trees dating as far back as possible to keep the species diverse.
Because there are so few gorillas nationwide, inbreeding is something zoos must avoid.
Once genetics are analyzed, zoos consider the ages of the gorillas and finally their social situations.
Two other females who have recently been moved to the Knoxville Zoo will be Wanto's new companions for possible mating. While Kowali is too old to breed, her age and her wisdom will be valuable to the breeding group in Knoxville, Long said.
"We recognized that Kowali was a female who was a possibility," Lukas said. "She wasn’t breeding and was very socially savvy female."
The process of acclimating the new gorillas at Knoxville will likely be a lengthy one that could take either weeks or months, according to researchers.
The first step involves the animals being separated by a room, but being able to see each other through glass or mesh.
The second places them next to each other separated only by mesh, so they can sit side by side and touch, smell and see each other.
"Basically you will see some lunging, chest beating and hooting," Lukas said. "Then if it's calm for a couple days they might decide to open the doors."