When Fekadu was born, Florence Klecha didn’t think he was going to make it. The average gestation period for the gelada, a type of monkey, is 180 days, and Fekadu’s arrival under her watch at the Bronx Zoo in 1997 was a whopping 10 days short of that.

“He was very quiet and infantile compared with the other babies,” says Klecha CC’81,’98, who was senior wild animal keeper in the zoo’s Department of Mammalogy. “I thought he was weak.”

Fekadu not only thrived, but also formed a special relationship with Klecha that even her recent retirement didn’t break. “I was like Fekadu’s harem female,” she says. “We developed a routine: I would groom his arm, and he would pull my  arm to show aggression when a dominant male was watching. At first, he pulled hard, but later he learned to do it gently. It was all for show.”

In a private talk held at the zoo for Rutgers alumni last October, Klecha shared Fekadu’s story and spoke about her research on the gelada, a fascinating primate that originally was believed to be a kind of baboon. (The area of the zoo in which the geladas are kept, named before their genetic reclassification, is called the Baboon Reserve.) The presentation was a part of Alumni on Location, a new Rutgers University Alumni Association event series that showcases alumni in unique settings related to their areas of expertise.

Klecha, a New Jersey native who lives in Passaic, did not dream that she would become so close to Fekadu and the other geladas when she started working with them in 1993. “I had never heard of the geladas, which are native to the Ethiopian Highlands,” she says. “The Bronx Zoo is the only place in the United States to  see them.”

Klecha’s initial experiences with the geladas, whose crimson chest markings inspired the nickname bleeding-heart baboons, were tentative. “I was apprehensive because they were so standoffish and stubborn,” she says. “They are very suspicious, and they delete everything they learned from the day before. It took me a while to learn gelada etiquette.”

Fekadu, a gelada monkey


Fekadu, a gelada monkey, was nursed to health under the watchful eye of Florence Klecha after being born prematurely at the Bronx Zoo. Geladas are native to the Ethiopian Highlands, and the Bronx Zoo is the only place in the United States to see them.

John O'Boyle

She discovered that the monkey-business behavior of these curious creatures, with the Darth Vader faces and Einsteinian wild-haired capes, was not as haphazard as it seemed. “There was an order that was based on hierarchy in and between harems,” she says. “So if I wanted to get them to do something, such as go through a door, everyone in the higher-ranking group would have to go first.”

Through the years, as Klecha and her gelada family, which sometimes numbered as many as 18, got to know one another, she conducted projects on pregnancy, reproductive failure, and reproductive pathologies. She also studied social interactions.

“As often happens in captivity, there was a surplus of males,” she says. “We  created a bachelor group, which occurs naturally in the wild in this species, by putting eight of them together. There was one male in charge, and below, we discovered that they split into buddy pairs and then into subgroups with leaders. One subgroup dominated, and they would flip in leaders in the pairs.”

Although the geladas, which top out at 60 pounds, never harmed Klecha, she was cautious when caring for them. “I developed a sixth sense and I had to learn their boundaries,” she says.

She became an expert at spotting the prime warning signs of aggression. When geladas get upset, they flash their pink  eyelids, grunt “huh, huh,” and raise their eyebrows while making a chomping sound. “They are grabbers first and biters second,” Klecha says. “One did grab and rip my pants leg once. Another time, when we were transporting one overseas, his brother put his arm through the cage and grabbed my arm to try to stop us.”

Fekadu isn’t the only gelada that made a big impression on Klecha. “Sissy, a female, really tugged at my heartstrings,” she says. “She was an underdog. She was infertile, and I always felt sorry for her.”

Klecha, who joined the Bronx Zoo as a volunteer in 1984, likes to say that she has worked with every animal from the anteater to the zebra. She was with the geladas for the longest part of her career: by her exact calculation, it was 17 years, two months, and 12 days.

“I have three bachelor’s degrees—in natural resource management, animal science, and veterinary technology—and the B.S. degrees were really helpful in my career,” she says. “I never regret not going for my master’s.”

The diversity of her degrees, she says, gives her the opportunity to redirect her career. Klecha says that although her time with the Bronx Zoo and its parent organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, was “a great career with many unique opportunities and wonderful memories,” it was time for a change. She recently started a new job as a clinical laboratory technician at Oradell Animal Hospital  in Paramus, New Jersey.

Without question, geladas will always be her first love. When Klecha returned to the zoo in October for her Alumni on Location presentation, she stopped by the Baboon Reserve. At first sight, Fekadu put his arm out for her to groom.