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Gorillas in their midst

Two from Rockport wind up working with gorillas

Brandi Baitchman, shown here with Kit, is among a small band of keepers who work with the gorillas at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Brandi Baitchman, shown here with Kit, is among a small band of keepers who work with the gorillas at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2011

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Kit is a lot of gorilla.

A western lowland gorilla, to be precise. Full name, Kitombe. At 25 years old, he weighs 343 pounds. Although he stands only about 5 feet tall, his sheer mass is stunning. But it’s the gravity of his expression that’s most imposing.

Standing behind a locked metal grate in the Tropical Forest at Franklin Park Zoo, he keeps his deep-set eyes on visitors even as zookeeper Brandi Baitchman puts him through his paces.

At her request, he offers up his hands, feet, and torso for her to touch through openings in the grate. Each correct move earns a peanut reward. He turns first one shoulder, then the other in her direction. He opens wide and sticks his tongue through the grate. It would seem comic, but his expression deters laughter. The training helps make medical checkups and shots possible, without tranquilizers, for the zoo’s eight gorillas.

“Everything we do has a purpose; none of our training is for tricks or anything like that,’’ Baitchman said. “Before training, [veterinary care] was negative, because we’d have to dart them. Now it’s very positive. We ask for a shoulder, we inject them, and they ask for their treat. They couldn’t care less.’’

Baitchman, 30, who lives in Easton, started her journey to the gorilla exhibit from tiny Rockport High School, but she’s not the only one to make that trip. Her fellow zookeeper, Dan McLaughlin, 29, of Roslindale, was a year behind her at Rockport High. Her graduating class was 52 students, his was 50. Now, in what has to be a longshot, Baitchman and McLaughlin are both part of a small group of keepers who work with the gorillas.

“It was totally by chance,’’ said Baitchman. “It was very strange.’’

Why gorillas?

“I like that they’re so similar. It’s like, kind of all the nice parts of people in them,’’ McLaughlin said. “It’s a very relaxing job, working with them.’’

They clean the enclosure, yes, and lug around the food. “Physically demanding, but very emotionally rewarding,’’ Baitchman said.

“We always have one gorilla behind the scenes . . . I train them as much as I can, because they’re back there, they love training, and it’s fun and positive,’’ Baitchman said. “We are with them all day long, giving them treats, setting up enrichment, moving them around, trying to keep them as busy as possible.’’

“They have their good days, their bad days, and you can tell that,’’ McLaughlin said.

“I normally don’t wear earrings, and it’s the first thing they notice; all of them are staring at my ears. I’m like, ‘Yes, I have earrings on,’ ’’ she said.

“They notice more than we probably notice,’’ Baitchman said.

Baitchman and McLaughlin recently co-authored a paper on the family arrangements among gorillas, focusing on the adult males, “Two’s Company and Three’s a Crowd . . . Keeping Three Silverbacks Socially Engaged at Franklin Park Zoo,’’ which was published in the August issue of the Gorilla Gazette.

At Rockport High, the Baitchman and McLaughlin weren’t especially close, but in a school that size, you know everyone.

“We both did chess [club],’’ she said.

“I think we had an accounting class together,’’ he said.

“Obviously, we were in the dorky group,’’ she said.

They went their separate ways after graduation. She headed to Simmons College and got a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “A lot of people who do training with animals have psychology degrees. It really helps with the positive reinforcement,’’ she said. “[But] I wasn’t getting a degree to be a gorilla trainer, I just kind of fell into it.’’

She was supposed to do a behavioral study of something in the community, and a faculty member who knew she liked animals suggested the gorillas would be a good subject. “I just fell in love with them and I fell in love with the zoo and the people at the zoo,’’ she said. Internship, temporary job, and staff position followed in order.

McLaughlin has a degree in evolution and ecology from the University of Rochester in New York. He was taking an array of preliminary science classes when he realized he didn’t want to work in a laboratory for the rest of his life. He’d always had pets and decided he wanted to do something with animals. That led to an internship at the zoo.

“I had been working at the zoo a couple of years,’’ said Baitchman, “and I saw someone walk by the lounge and I said to my coworker, ‘Jeez, I think I went to high school with that kid.’ And I’m, like, no way, that couldn’t be possible. And then he walked in the lounge, and I’m like, ‘Dan?!’ ’’

He didn’t know she worked there; it was pure chance. But he liked the work and stuck around when his internship ended. In another coincidence, they each married a person from Rochester, N.Y., too - but no, their spouses didn’t know each other beforehand.

“Sometimes when he’s home visiting his in-laws, and I’m visiting mine, we’ll catch up in Rochester,’’ she says with a laugh. “It’s really strange.’’

Besides gorillas, they have other duties in the Tropical Forest, a large, dome-like structure divided into different sections. On this day, McLaughlin enjoyed feeding a few treats to the giant anteater, Jockamo. He stuck a few mealworms in a plastic tub, which is screwed onto a small opening in the plexiglass enclosure. While a scarlet ibis watched from a perch high overhead, Jockamo immediately moved to the opening and ate by flicking his impressive tongue down the tube, a foot and a half or so.

“That saliva is really sticky,’’ noted Baitchman. “When we give him bowls, we have to soak them for a while afterward. That stuff is like plaster.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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