When Meredith Bastian was 8 years old, she went to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to get help with a school project. She interviewed the curator of primates at the time and asked her about wild gorillas. Fast-forward 34 years, and Bastian is the curator of primates at the zoo. This summer she talked to a girl who shares her passion for the primates.
"What is the difference between a gorilla in the zoo and a gorilla in the wild?" asked Addy Barrett, an 11-year-old who raises money to save gorillas.
There isn't much of a difference between an ape in the wild and an ape in the zoo, Bastian said. Every animal has a personality, just like every human does. They can be shy, friendly, playful or aggressive.
Addy, a regular visitor to the zoo, never gets tired of watching the gorillas interact. She tugged her mom's shirt with excitement when 1-year-old Moke was chased around the outdoor enclosure.
"It wasn't until I read a book about gorillas that I really fell in love with how smart they are and how they relate to us," Addy told Bastian while sitting in front of the zoo's Great Ape House. "I learned they were being poached and killed for reasons that I felt were unnecessary. I needed to do something."
Addy is now a sixth-grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown, Maryland, working to save her favorite animal species. She has sold T-shirts and homemade cookies for the cause, and she hosts an annual Gorilla Gala. Addy was recently named a winner of the 2019 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for her work to raise $7,000 for conservation groups such as the Ellen Fund and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Addy asked Bastian what challenges wild gorillas face that some people may not be aware of. Bastian said that it is a combination of habitat loss, climate change, poaching and spread of disease such as the Ebola virus. But there is also the problem of mining. Coltan is a mineral that is used to make cellphones and is mined mostly in Congo in Central Africa. These mines destroy gorilla habitats and worsen living conditions.
"One of the strongest messages you can send to people is to recycle their cellphones," Bastian told Addy.
Habitat loss is one of the reasons Addy decided to start the Gorilla Heroes project last year. She has held fundraisers, bake sales and social media challenges in hope of starting a conversation on the threats to gorillas. The animals, which are native to Central Africa, are critically endangered. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas and about 100,000 Western lowland gorillas in the world.
Addy hopes to get close to a gorilla in the wild — something Bastian did for 10 years as a young professional. Typically a person needs to be at least 15 years old to trek to where the gorillas live, so for now Addy is sticking to raising awareness.
Bastian offered words of advice for Addy's future visit: Never look at a gorilla in the eye because they take that as a threat.
"They're not going to hurt you," Bastian said. "You just need to be confident about that and have your body language tell them 'yes, this is your forest, not mine.' "