Gorilla Encounters

Warren Garst

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Mountain Gorilla

My favorite animal to work with is the gorillas.

There’s something about them that just is, it’s the hardest work that I did during the entire 25 years of filming. Just getting to them because we had to climb these steep mountains [with] very bad footing in most of the places.

And quite often it would take us two to three hours of hiking through the forest to get to where the gorillas were, but when we finally got there we would come on these animals and they just seemed like they wanted to work with us.

We’d come up, and if they were resting, and this was the time that we really worked with them best because most of the time the jungle was, well I really shouldn’t call it a jungle, it’s really just a forest, but the brush was so heavy that we couldn’t see them even three feet away.

There were big plants there, the giant nettles, that grew to six or eight feet tall, and the stickers on them were so long that we had to wear leather gloves and usually two pair of pants so that we could go through them.

But gorillas just love giant nettles, it’s one of their favorite foods. They like the giant celery that they had there, and these are big plants.

We’d be right in the middle of the gorilla bunch, but we couldn’t see them.

And Dian Fossey had a rule that whenever we approached the gorillas we would go in on hands and knees because she thought if we went in standing up, it would pose a threat to the gorillas, or they would interpret it as a threat and not react in a friendly way.

We’d get on these gorillas, and if they stopped to rest, which they usually did in the late morning, youngsters would start playing and all of the sudden they’d have all of the foliage, they would roll over the foliage and tramp it down and we could start seeing the animals scattered around.

The gorillas would see us and one or two of the females would come over one at a time and just come and sit next to us. It just seemed like they were coming to say hello.

We found out early that you don’t sit with your legs straight in front of you otherwise they’d come and sit on your legs and these animals weigh about 200 pounds, and it’s not a comfortable thing.

I remember I was filming Dian one time and she made that mistake. A gorilla came up to say hello to her and sat on her legs. She was there, and I was trying to film her with sync sound and she was muttering under her breath, “This hurts!”

(Laughs) You don’t just push the gorilla off. You let them sort of do things on their own.

I just found that they were such a unique animal. They seem to understand us as well as we understood them. It was a real pleasure to work with them.