The Matriarch – A Mother’s Day Tribute

We faced each other like a couple of gunslingers at high noon. I was a young zookeeper, armed with a three-foot-long stick called a bull hook. My opponent brought his pair of impressive ivory tusks and six-thousand-pounds of bulk. Bwana stood about twenty yards away, facing me with his trunk up and his ears fanned out in a threat display. He was a nine-year-old male African elephant, and he was testing me to see who was in charge.

If he had been in the wild, there would have been no doubt who was boss. It would have been his mother. That’s because wild African elephants live in a matriarchal society—a world that is dominated by the females.

A mother elephant will usually try to set an unruly youngster right with a gentle nudge in the right direction or, if that doesn’t work, a sharp slap with her trunk. And when a young male like Bwana approaches puberty at ten to twelve years of age, his mother probably won’t try to coax him back like I did. At that age, she is more likely to force him out of the herd. Adult males lead solitary lives or live temporarily in a smaller herd with other young bulls until it is time to breed.

Another matriarchal society that some might find surprising is a fearsome, ocean-dwelling creature that hunts in packs, chases seals for sport, and can kill a great white shark. That’s right, Killer Whales are also ruled by their mothers. Killer Whales, or Orcas, are the largest member of the dolphin family. They live in female-led pods, where they hunt together and share responsibility for raising the young and taking care of the sick or injured.

Mom with David, Doug, Don, and Danny

Thinking about matriarchal societies seems like a good way to remember my own mother on Mother’s Day. She came to motherhood at an early age and took it on with tenacity. She married my father at eighteen and had me a year later. She tragically lost her second child—her only daughter—in childbirth but went on to have three more sons. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Carol Porter is how unremarkable her story is. But I am glad we set aside a day for me to continue to honor her, even though she would insist she was just doing her job as a mother.

I should honor my wife, too. She may not be my mother, but she is the best mother I know. And her motherly love can even cross species barriers. In the late 1990s, a female gorilla in a zoo at which I worked gave birth but was unable to care for her baby for a while. When zookeepers stepped in to care for the infant, we had to find surrogate mothers to hold the baby on a regular basis and to bottle-feed it around the clock. A group of dedicated volunteers—including my wife—agreed to take turns caring for the infant gorilla until its mother was able to resume her duties.

In fact, I can think of no better example of motherhood in the animal kingdom than the female gorilla. Gorillas live in troops of a few—to a few dozen—members that are led by a dominant, adult, silverback male. Zoo Atlanta recently announced the birth of a gorilla, and they report that the infant appears healthy and strong, is nursing normally, and is receiving appropriate maternal care. I would expect nothing less from a gorilla mom.

Zoo visitors who are fortunate enough to see the infant might note that gorillas are born with an instinctive ability to hold on to their mothers’ chests but, in most other respects, they are helpless. Mothers support their babies for the first few months of life but, unlike humans, gorilla mothers seldom allow other gorillas to hold or carry their infants. Babies learn to crawl and ride on their mothers’ backs at about three months of age and may continue to ride on their mothers’ backs, chests, or legs for three or four years. If we had a Mother’s Day for the animal kingdom, mother gorillas would be high on the list of honorees.

We humans are, I suppose, neither matriarchal nor patriarchal—although America seems to be a more gorilla-like patriarchal society. My home growing up was certainly male dominated. My mom was outnumbered by my three brothers, my dad, and me. The toilet seat was always up in our house.

But that’s not to say my mom didn’t exert her influence. She could, at times, seem as powerful as a hurricane or as gentle as a summer breeze. She could bandage a skinned knee, soothe an injured ego, or send us outside to break a switch off the willow tree so she could use it on our bare behind.

My mom stayed home until my youngest brother was in school then she gave up that quaint notion that the woman’s place is in the home. She got a job with Bell Telephone and stayed with them for the rest of her working life.

She died a few years ago and I miss her terribly. I wish I could send her a card or call her on Mother’s Day to tell her I love her—and to thank her for not forcing me out of the herd when I reached puberty.

J. D. (Doug) Porter is a retired zoo director who writes about animals, nature, and the outdoors in his books and on his website: He lives in Atlanta and is the author of two novels and a memoir, Lessons from the Zoo: Ten Animals That Changed My Life.

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