gorilla and baby gorilla and baby Newborn gorillas stay in constant contact with their mothers for five months. (Photo: Joca de Jong / Shutterstock)

Could a gorilla raise a human child?

A zoologist explains how Tarzan's premise could happen in real life.

With "The Legend of Tarzan" in theaters, we started wondering how realistic it is for a family of apes to raise a human child. But then, why wonder when we could find out? From the Grapevine sat down with Keren Or, a zoologist at the Ramat Gan Safari, a 250-acre wildlife preserve and zoo near Tel Aviv, Israel. She has been working with apes for 15 years.

"... I think the best candidates for a successful rearing of a human child are gorillas," Or told From the Grapevine, explaining that gorillas, like humans, like to stay on the ground. Chimpanzees and orangutans spend a lot of time in trees, which would be tough for a human.

"A human child will never be able to jump from tree to tree and branch to branch as they do," Or explained, casting shadows of doubt on Tarzan's ability to swing from conveniently placed vines.


If a gorilla found and adopted a human baby, the kid might not have it so bad, since gorilla mothers are pretty amazing.

"Mother apes are very attentive and might take very good care of a baby," Or explained. Gorillas tend to live in families with one silverback male, a few females and their offspring. "Gorillas are extremely protective with their families."

Plus, these apes, who tend to live in African rainforests, have pretty good lives.

"Their days are very easygoing," Or told us. "They spend a lot of the daytime eating ... You can say that they actually live in a huge salad bowl." Infinite salad without dressing may seem like a Twilight Zone nightmare, but it's not a bad deal for a family of herbivores.

In addition to eating, young gorillas play and nap most of the day. At night, they sleep in nests they build in trees, an architectural task that might be tough for our imaginary Tarzan and his underdeveloped biceps.

It wouldn't be the only challenge he'd face. Or explained that human babies grow up much slower than gorilla babies, so a boy living with gorillas would not be a straight-A student in gorilla school. But Or thinks he'd catch up and learn to communicate with his adoptive family.

"I guess the human child would have no problem learning the gorillas' behavior," Or determined, pointing out that children learn by mimicking adults. Gorillas and humans are so close, genetically, that the two species act pretty similarly. "We sure can read each other's body language and facial expressions easily," Or said.


In fact, real-life Tarzan has been tried before ... sort of. In the 1960s, some scientists decided to raise baby chimps in a human family to figure out how human-like the chimps would end up. But the parents stopped the experiment when their human children starting getting a little too chimp-like.

If a child raised by apes tried to live with humans, like Tarzan, Or thinks he'd run into problems. "I guess he would still be able to learn to live amongst humans, but he would never be a normal person," she said. "Some things must be learned in childhood." There are plenty of stories about feral children living with apes, though it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

Then again, maybe real-life Tarzan would prefer to just stay with his gorilla family. As Or told us: "Disregarding poaching, habitat destruction and so on, life with a gorilla family can be lots of fun!"


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Could a gorilla raise a human child?
A zoologist explains how Tarzan's premise could happen in real life.