The Do Something challenge: Simon Hattenstone

This article is a preview from the Guardian’s new Do Something supplement in this Saturday’s paper, full of ways to make the most of your weekend

Task: Gorilla keeper
Location: Durrell Wildlife Park, Jersey

Watch a video of Simon at the zoo
Other places to be a zookeeper for a day

I grew up with great apes. Kind of. It was the 70s – if we weren’t glued to King Kong it was Planet of the Apes. At school, it became personal when I was nicknamed Galen. Rather than thinking “Cool! The school bullies think I’m the spit of Hollywood’s most famous chimp,” I got a complex about it. But over time I learned to embrace my inner ape. They were hairy, scary, almost human and utterly gorgeous.

Today, I’m fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition – hanging out with the greatest of all apes, the gorilla. Ideally, I’d be in Rwanda, trekking in the misty mountains. But you can’t have everything, so I’m making do with Jersey, and Gerald Durrell’s wildlife park. To be honest, it doesn’t look that different from a regular zoo, but David Attenborough has called it the most “accomplished, admirable and wonderful institution in the world”. Which, frankly, is good enough for me.

For £150, a group of four can do a shift working with the gorillas – the park has managed to trick us into paying them to do their work. Genius. But it’s worth every penny. Gorilla groupies get the thrill of a lifetime, and an afternoon tea is thrown in.

First, I put on my uniform and we make them a lovely nutritional snack consisting of Marmite, oats and cardboard. The recipe is delightfully simple: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would be proud of it.

• 4 cardboard boxes

• 1 box of oats

• 1 large jar of Marmite

Spread Marmite on the inside of the box with knife. Next, place oats on to Marmite.

But it’s surprisingly exhausting, so to keep energy levels up I nibble away at the oats and Marmite mix. Yum! We carry the boxes over to the gorilla dining room and place them on their swings and hammocks for them to devour at their leisure. The idea behind the box is that it will exercise the gorillas and keep them occupied. Their home is small (three adjoining rooms), but they have a huge back garden. John, who looks after them, says most of the winter they stay indoors.

This is a family of five western lowland gorillas (they originate from central Africa, but were born in captivity in Europe): the silverback male, Badongo; his three women, Kishka, Bahasha and Kahilli, and her one-year-old baby, Indigo, live together in a happy harem. More than 100,000 western lowland gorillas are estimated to exist in the wild, (plus 4,000 in zoos) but they are vulnerable to ebola, poaching and deforestation.

John says what he loves about them is how closely their lives mirror ours, albeit with more polygamy than most.

Badongo is boss, and makes no bones of it. He’s almost twice the size of the females, plenty more vocal, and ridiculously macho. When he sees the camera, he releases the most terrifying bark and beats his chest. The message is unambiguous: “No paparazzi.” The chest beats echo through the enclosure like deafening castanets. Kahilli shows her disapproval more modestly – she puts her hands over her ears, and turns away from us.

Badongo is 14 years old (a gorilla’s life expectancy is usually 35-40 years), and his back is not yet fully silvered. He is a cross between Liam Gallagher and Jim Royle. Most of the time, he’s scratching his armpits, fingering his nose, sieving the straw for Marmite. Every so often he gets grumpy, wallops one of his girls and sits down again. Even Badongo would admit he’s not the most reconstructed of gorillas.

The more we photograph, the grumpier he gets. His muscles start to flex. It’s not so much that he’s aggressive or misanthropic – he’s just protecting his family. In the corner of the living room is a great wooden punchbag. He gets up, smacks it so hard it rocks back and forth for 20 seconds, and sits down again. John says it’s good for him to get angry. There’s a danger that gorillas in captivity become too passive.

When Bandongo comes up close, I want to hug him. But of course I can’t. John loves his gorillas – he chats away to them, adores them, respects them, but he has never touched them. That would be disrespectful, he says – a needless challenge to Badongo’s authority.

As we prepare lunch, I find myself chomping away at a celery stick.

“Lovely,” I say, and put it back in the bucket. John gives me a look.

“I think we better not give them the celery you’ve half eaten.”

Why not?

“We don’t want to infect them,” he says.

We serve lunch. I feel quietly proud and emotional. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as watching your babies tuck in to a bit of home cooking.

By the time the photographer, Felix, and I get back to the airport we’re nostalgic for our apes. We flick through the photos and reminisce about the good old days a couple of hours ago. “Do you remember when Badongo beat his chest because he was so pleased to see us?” I ask Felix. “Or when he tried to kiss me through the glass partition?” Felix doesn’t. I feel bereft. Maybe the gorillas are missing me as much as I am them. Perhaps they’ll adopt me one day. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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