A gorilla at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is inspiring children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Kumbuka is getting national attention after Nemours Children’s Hospital ENT and Audiology team performed an Auditory Brainstem Response test, which measures the hearing nerve’s response to sounds. This was a way for zookeepers to test their theory of whether the gorilla, Kumbuka, is deaf. This is the same procedure most infants receive when doctors test their hearing.
Two alumni students from the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech, Karsen Morris and Garrett Campbell, had an up-close, personal experience with Kumbuka and her trainer.
At about 280 pounds, this gorilla shares a connection with these young boys.
“She can’t hear, but she can still do a lot like a normal gorilla. So she can still fit in in some ways,” said Garrett.
For Karsen and Garrett, they were diagnosed with a hearing loss at young age.
“I thought it was really cool that there was a deaf gorilla,” said Garrett.
These boys were able to be feet away as they watched zookeepers work on training Kumbuka with visual commands to improve their communication with her.
“She’s very (much) trained to do things, like, lift her hands up and follow to touch the paddles,” Karsen said.
Gorillas are very social animals and extremely vocal with how they communicate with one another. After confirming that Kambuka was deaf, zookeepers had to switch from auditory cues to visual cues. These cues aren’t necessarily sign language, but positive reinforcement movements like nodding their head or using a flashlight to express praise to Kumbuka.
“They’re using different tools, and she is recognizing them and she knows what to do,” Garrett said as he watched trainers interact with Kumbuka.
At the Jacksonville Zoo, the zookeeper showed us footage of doctors using cutting-edge technology to test 20-year-old Kumbuka’s hearing loss.
“The best part honestly was having an answer and knowing for sure that she was deaf, or that she is deaf,” said Kimberly Skelton, senior mammal keeper.
This ABR test is something Karsen's mom, Tina Morris, explained to her son that he had done when he was a baby.
“What they did on Kumbuka was what doctors did to you. We had to put you to sleep and they had to put the electrodes on you and measure your brain response to sound,” Tina Morris said.
Originally, zookeepers started picking up on some behavioral signs when she wasn’t responding to her name and delayed on reacting to commands from trainers. They say she was also becoming withdrawn from the other gorillas.
Karsen’s mom mentioned how not hearing may be frightening at times for Kumbuka and asked the boys if they can recall a time when they were scared.
“Kumbuka is probably feeling like that right now. This is different for her, so the zoo here is just trying to learn how to help her and to make her have a happy life,” Tina Morris said.
The boys told Action News Jax they are able to connect with Kumbuka because their storylines are similar.
“We both have a hearing loss,” said Karsen Morris.
This gorilla is inspiring thousands of people who are deaf and hard of hearing as her story continues to be shared on a national news platform.
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