Chaka, a 15-year-old silver-back gorilla, may have been the love machine in his old stomping grounds, but in his new neighborhood he has been getting nowhere fast. Each time he has put the moves on 29-year-old Demba, she slaps his face. Hard. Still, their evolving courtship—and everything else about them—enthralls the staff at the Philadelphia Zoo. "I was amazed at how quickly I took to them," says chief gorilla keeper Julie Unger Smith, 35. "I wasn't sure I could open myself up again."

Who could blame her? On Christmas Eve 1995, the World of Primates house was the site of the worst zoo fire in U.S. history. It claimed the lives of 3 orangutans, 4 gibbons, 10 lemurs and the 6-member gorilla family—patriarch John, his partners Snickers and Samantha, and their young, Kola, Tufani and Maandazi—that Smith had spent eight years raising, and whose portraits graced her home.

Devastated, Philadelphians from kindergartners to corporate execs vowed to build a state-of-the-art facility. They succeeded: On July 1 the $24 million PECO Primate Reserve, named for the local power utility, a huge donor, was unveiled. It boasts a $1 million smoke-evacuation system with detectors wired directly to the Philadelphia Fire Department. (The original building had no sprinkler system.) In addition to housing Chaka, Demba and two other gorillas, the 2.5-acre habitat—built to resemble an abandoned timber mill, with bark to tear and branches from which to swing—will become home to 10 species. It's a hoot for humans too. The animals can be heard chattering via hidden microphones and seen through 25-foot floor-to-ceiling windows. "It's like they said, 'Dream up your perfect facility, and we'll build it,' " says Smith. Still, she adds, the opening was bittersweet: "If only the others were here to enjoy this wonderful place."

When they died, John, Snickers and Samantha—who had been orphaned in poaching incidents in Africa—had been together for 25 years, making them America's longest-established gorilla family and a trove of information for behavioral scientists. But for Smith, who received grief counseling for several months after the fire, the loss was personal. She wasn't sure she could bond with new gorillas. "But they pushed their way into my heart," she says. The healing began with the return of Chaka—John and Samantha's son—who had been sent to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1994. His time there did not go unnoticed. Cincinnati Magazine dubbed him "Best Stud Muffin" for the eight offspring he sired while there. Philadelphia Zoo officials hope he'll win over Demba, whose genes are prized because her parents were wild gorillas, but who has never become pregnant.

It may take time. When the apes arrived in April, Chaka and youngsters Kimya, 5, and Michael, 7, took to their new digs with little drama. Demba, however, needed 20 minutes of sweet-talking before she came out of her crate, clutching her blue security blanket and sucking her finger. She gave the new place the once-over. Then she "pirouetted and clapped her hands," says Smith. "There was no mistaking it—she was happy." Not always. Some days, when 342-pound ladies' man Chaka struts uninvited into Demba's den, she screams, then "he hightails it and runs," Smith says. "He turns into a mouse. He could be Mr. Macho," she reports, "but he respects her." Can love be far behind?

Christina Cheakalos
Bob Calandra in Philadelphia

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  • Bob Calandra.