"A Mom for Umande" tells the tale of an orphaned gorilla at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

June 9, 2014 Updated: June 9, 2014 at 9:15 am
photo - Umande at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
Umande at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.  

When Maria Faulconer was a child, she sat at her mother's knee for readings of the fairy tales of their Austrian homeland. Those darkly captivating stories - of slumbering princesses and magic - marked the beginning of Faulconer's love for storytelling and a life-long romance with words.

A San Francisco native who moved to Colorado Springs in the 1970s, Faulconer's first book, "Arianna and the Strawberry Tea," was based on her very early experiences staying at the historic Hotel del Coronado, a luxury hotel on the San Diego Bay. Published in 1998, "Arianna" earned positive reviews and was included in a statewide literacy program.

Eight years passed, however, before Faulconer encountered a topic that got her creative juices flowing in a similar manner. The inspiration came when a member of her critique group showed her a newspaper photo and story about Umande, a gorilla born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo who was hand-raised by keepers after his young mother was unable to care for him. When he was 8 months old, Umande was relocated and "adopted" by a female gorilla at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

"The photo was of Umande snuggling with his adoptive mom at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio," said Faulconer. "There was something so special about the feelings between them. I was so captivated by the joy on their faces that I knew I had to write a story about this resilient little gorilla."

The story contained special resonance for Faulconer, an adoptive mom of two adult children.

"I think that's why I was so taken by the photograph," Faulconer said. "My kids are grown and out on their own, but I'm always eternally grateful to the birth moms who gave them up for adoption."

The only hitch with telling the story of Umande, which means "swirling mists" in Swahili, was the gorilla was no longer in the Springs. Faulconer, a veteran freelance journalist who writes for Colorado Springs Style magazine, had to construct her children's story like the biography it was, working backward.

Faulconer spent months regularly visiting the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, getting to know the Primate World keepers who held and bottle-fed Umande, acting as surrogate parents until his relocation.

Heidi Eaton was among a team of employees who provided round-the-clock care for the infant Umande, and one of three zookeepers featured as characters in the book. "We had a couple gorillas that we had hand-reared before, but we did it differently (with Umande), as far as spending absolutely 24/7 with him, just like a gorilla mom," Eaton said. "We'd crawl around on all fours and let him ride on our backs like he would do with a gorilla."

Umande was never left alone, day or night.

"We had a bed in the back and a mattress on exhibit; the keeper would be sleeping if he was sleeping, on display. It was weird at first, but we got used to it," Eaton said.

Faulconer's 32-page, 900-word children's book, "A Mom for Umande," with art by award-winning illustrator Susan Kathleen Hartung, was published in April. The book earned a starred review in Kirkus for its "heartwarming look at the human-animal relationship," and was featured in The New York Times and USA Today book sections as recommended reading for Mother's Day.

"It's thrilling to know it's touched other people and their lives," said Faulconer, who's at work on a young adult novel.

Sadly, Umande's adoptive mom, Lulu, died in 2011 at the age of 46. Umande now lives at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, where he is a member of the first bachelor group of adolescent western lowland gorillas.

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