Nik the gorilla charmed many at N.C. Zoo

In many ways, he was just like any other Ohio transplant to North Carolina.

He arrived in 2008, found work in the tourist trade and started a family. Handsome, athletic and clever, he made friends easily. A strict vegetarian at 410 pounds, he was a loving dad who spoiled his two toddler sons by toting them around piggy-back.

Nkosi, or Nik to his friends, was a western lowland gorilla and when he died Tuesday – far too young, just three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday – humans shed tears.

“We’ve had other charismatic gorillas here, but he was unique,” said Chris Goldston, a 29-year veteran at the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro and Nik’s friend and keeper since the silverback arrived via Fedex in 2008. “He was very laid back, very much a family man.”

And smart. Wicked smart.

Nik didn’t like to get wet. He didn’t like mud. If he had to come to the edge of the gorilla enclosure to meet with his keepers, they’d have to pass a wad of burlap in to him. Nik would spread it on the ground like a picnic blanket, and they’d get down to business.

Some of their business was medical. Like humans, lowland gorillas get heart disease. Nik knew how to spread his arms and shove his chest up against the fence so veterinarians could give him sonograms. They’d hand him carrots during the procedure and, if things went well, he’d get a bonus – a handful of green beans.

Some of their business was dental. Like humans, Nik had periodontal disease, but wasn’t the type to sit in a dentist chair.

“Our vet said we needed to do something, and out of the blue someone suggested dental rinse,” said Goldston. “We went out and bought different ones, Crest and others. He didn’t like them. Finally we tried SpongeBob SquarePants Ocean Berry Blue.”

Nik loved it. Every day, keepers would use their hands to signal him to open his mouth, and they’d squirt his teeth. His last checkup was excellent.

He had a Hollywood flair

For 16 years, zoo spokesman Rod Hackney has helped produce “The Zoo Filez,” a weekly TV program that airs on WBTV (Channel 3) Sunday mornings and on 12 other stations around the state. Producer Terry Shiels was filming one day when the rubber eyepiece fell off his expensive Sony camera and into the gorilla habitat. Nik sauntered over and picked it up.

With other animals, this would be a big problem. But Nik understood business.

A keeper went to a fence-like portal and called out, “Nik trade! Nik trade!” said Hackney. “That eyepiece was about six inches wide, so Nik folded it so it would fit through the grate.” Carrots went the other way, completing the transaction.

Gorillas in peril

Native to the rain forests of equatorial Africa, western lowland gorillas are the least imperiled of the four gorilla species in the wild, but all are critically endangered.

Biologist Rich Bergl has spent years in the rain forests, specializing in protecting the most endangered species, the cross-river gorilla through a program affiliated with the N.C. Zoo. There are only about 300 cross-river gorillas left in the wild, he estimates, compared with up to 100,000 western lowland gorillas like Nik.

“Gorillas are under pressure from hunting and habitat loss,” Bergl said. “People hunt them for the bushmeat trade, driven by affluent urban demand. Bushmeat is a status symbol in cities.”

Logging and deforestation for farmland is also eliminating habitat. In some areas of Africa, gorilla populations have declined by 90 percent in the last 20 years, Bergl said.

Nik’s American habitat

Nik was born in the Columbus, Ohio, zoo in 1991. As part of a program to ensure genetic diversity among captive gorillas, he was sent to the N.C. Zoo in 2008. He was still young – gorillas like Nik typically live well into their 40s. He arrived in Greensboro in a cage aboard a Fedex transport plane and was trucked to the zoo, which draws about 760,000 visitors a year.

“He was an amazingly friendly and pleasant gorilla,” said Bergl. “He wasn’t aggressive toward keepers or people. Male gorillas aren’t known as being super friendly, but he was a nice guy.”

Nik was gradually introduced to the female gorillas, and they apparently hit it off.

There are maybe five to 10 live births annually among the 360 western lowland gorillas in zoos and wildlife parks in North America. A year ago, the N.C. Zoo accounted for two. Nik had mated with two of the females, both of whom delivered in August 2012. In July, another was born but did not survive.

As the infants grew and their mothers gradually gave them more freedom, they gravitated toward their father.

“He’s the only male gorilla I’ve ever seen to carry a baby on his back,” said Bergl.

“That is a behavior that is almost exclusively for females,” said Goldston. “He was very gentle with the babies. They would run up to him, slap at him to play, and if he didn’t want to play, he’d gently push them away. I think he knew his strength.”

A sudden decline

A week ago, keepers noticed that Nik was out of sorts. He lost his appetite, had difficulty walking.

Workers at the zoo sat with him around the clock. On Sunday, he collapsed. He was unable to eat or drink.

On Tuesday he was euthanized. Tissue samples have been sent to laboratories to try to determine his illness. His remains will be cremated and interred at the zoo.

Hackney said there’s an old saying in the zoo business that the mortality rate is 100 percent, but deaths still have a profound impact. Some workers were in tears over the death.

“It’s like losing a family member. People here are clearly suffering the loss,” Hackney said.

And not just people. Tuesday evening, the three females of the troupe and the two babies began acting puzzled as nightfall drew near.

“They recognize that he’s gone,” Goldston said. “They were looking for him.”