The gorilla in our midst

by Rebecca on July 10, 2011

in Animal Stories,Animals in the News

The gorilla in our midst: The enchanting story of the couple who adopted baby Digit (and still let her share the duvet 13 years on)

By Kathryn Knight

Like most devoted parents, Pierre and Eliane Thivillon know their 13-year-old’s little idiosyncrasies inside out. She is partial to a milky coffee and a brioche for breakfast, while her favourite evening meal is a portion of leeks in a creamy sauce.

She prefers sparkling water to still, and absolutely loves her sleep, complaining vociferously if she gets woken up too early.

Yes, she has her moody moments — what teenager doesn’t? — but, in general, she has a calm and placid nature.

Want a bite? Pierre Thivillon offers the two-year-old a snack 

Want a bite? Pierre Thivillon offers the two-year-old Digit a snack. She has been part of the family for 13 years

Which is just as well because not only does their ‘little girl’ weigh 80k (12st 8lb), but she is covered in fur, and, were she so minded, she could kill her ‘parents’ with just one over-zealous hug. Not that there’s much risk of that.

Because while Digit may be a fully-grown gorilla, for the past 13 years the Thivillons have raised her as lovingly as if she were their own daughter at their home in the hills west of Lyon, France.

And their bond, they insist, is as close and loving as that of any conventional (human) family.

While Digit spends her days swinging, scratching and parading around a roomy enclosure, each evening she tootles across a covered walkway into Pierre and Eliane’s bedroom where the house-trained gorilla hunkers down for the night alongside them, snuggled under a duvet.

Sweet dreams: Eliane Thivillon and Digit catch 40 winks

Sweet dreams: Eliane Thivillon and Digit catch 40 winks

If Pierre rises early, the gorilla will often clamber into his place to snuggle alongside his wife

If Digit is thirsty, she has no qualms about shaking Pierre awake to get her a drink of water, and if he rises first she will often clamber into his place to snuggle up alongside his wife.

Once everyone is up and about, this rather unusual trio eat breakfast together as a family before taking a morning stroll.

It is an extraordinary situation; one that is believed to be unique in the world — and little wonder. Gorillas may be wonderful creatures to look at, but given their size and strength, not many of us would fancy keeping one as a family pet.

Not so the Thivillons.

‘With Digit, I am never afraid,’ says Pierre.

‘I trust her implicitly, and that goes both ways — she has enormous confidence in us too. If she gets a splinter in her hand she will come to me to remove it.

‘The other day she had pineapple between her teeth and held her mouth open so I could floss it out with a stick. She has never shown a moment of aggression towards us. She just likes us being with her.’

Digit at one-month. She weighed just two kilos (4lb 6oz), and her life hung in the balance as the Thivillons tried to nurse her back to strength

Digit at one month


It’s certainly fair to say that Digit is as demanding as any human child (although in gorilla years she is, technically, a young woman now).

‘We cannot leave Digit overnight with anyone else, which means we haven’t be able to go out for 13 years,’ admits Pierre.

‘We haven’t had a holiday, or a night away. We haven’t been to the cinema, the theatre, or out for dinner. It would make Digit sad if we weren’t here, and if she is sad we are, too.’

Married for 43 years, and with no children of their own, the Thivillons have dedicated their lives to animal conservation, setting up a private zoo in St Martin La Plaine 39 years ago to provide a sanctuary for ill-treated wild animals from circuses, private homes and other badly-run zoos across the world.

Funded by visitor fees and donations, today it is home to more than a thousand animals, among them monkeys, gibbons, snow leopards, tigers and lions and eight other gorillas.

But it is Digit who will always have a special place in their heart and home. Not least as she was born there.

Digit’s mother, Pamela, also lives in the family zoo after she was rescued from captivity in Cameroon, but sadly had little maternal instinct for her baby when she gave birth in October 1998 and failed to feed her.

‘We watched anxiously for two days,’ says Pierre. ‘But Digit was starving, shrinking before our eyes.’

She was also being bullied by some of the other young males, who would drag her along the ground while her mother looked on impassively.

‘In the wild, Digit would have died but we couldn’t allow that,’ says Pierre.

‘We held out our hands to Pamela, and by doing so, asked her if she would give us her baby. She understood, and passed Digit through her food hatch.’

Digit weighed just two kilos (4lb 6oz), and her life hung in the balance as the Thivillons tried to nurse her back to strength. They knew they were taking on a huge commitment: gorillas are reliant on milk for the first three years of their life and once she was bottle-fed there would be little chance of her being returned to her mother.

So, at just a few months old, Digit became part of the family, spending her every waking hour with the couple as they went about their work at the zoo.

If Pierre drove a tractor, Digit sat on his lap; if Eliane went to the post office in the village, she took Digit with her.

‘We did all the things you would do with a normal child,’ Pierre recalls.

‘We took her for walks, we played with toys, we read books with her. Sometimes Eliane took her for a drive through the countryside, although in the end that got too difficult because you can’t make her wear a seatbelt and she clambered all over the car.’

Initially, Digit slept on her own in a put-up bed in the office of the couple’s home. All this changed, however, when, aged two, she had to have an operation to remove an abscess from her stomach.

‘The night of the operation she was very woozy so we didn’t want to leave her on her own, so Eliane and I slept alongside her on put-up beds,’ Pierre explains.

‘We only intended to do it for two nights, but when we had settled her in on the third night and got up to leave, she reached up with each hand and pulled us both back. She didn’t want us to go. It was a case of “stay one more night, please”. And 11 years later we’re still there.’

The couple’s bedroom, meanwhile, remains totally unused.

Unsurprisingly, there have been logistical problems: as Digit got older — and stronger — allowing her to roam in a public space during the day became unsafe. She needed a new daily hangout, and Pierre decided the chimp enclosure might do the trick.

‘We couldn’t put her back in with the gorillas as Pamela could react badly to her,’ he explains.

‘Chimps and gorillas aren’t really natural bedfellows in the wild, but in captivity they can get on and at least this way Digit could socialise with other primates rather than be alone.’

A pattern was established: during the day Digit would play with her new friends, and at night Pierre would come to collect her and take her over to the family home, where she would cuddle up with the couple.

It is a pattern which has unfolded in more or less the same way for the past seven years, although these days Digit has her own enclosure directly linked to the house.

‘She comes over at 8pm and climbs through the window to our bedroom,’ explains Pierre. ‘She has something to drink and sometimes something to eat, and then she pulls her covers over her and goes to sleep.

‘Then every morning we have breakfast together before she goes back to her enclosure.’

Read more: Daily Mail.

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