The Making of #TEDtalkGorilla

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August 2, 2017
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August 2, 2017

Photo Editor Jamie Pham was in the right place at the right time to capture Kelly’s “TED Talk” gesture. Photo by Jamie Pham

On June 20, the Dallas Zoo uploaded a video of their western lowland gorilla Zola “breakdancing” in a kiddie pool as an opportunity to educate the public about the role of enrichment at zoos. As it turned out, Zola’s enthusiastic dancing and the attention it garnered was just a warm-up for the trending topic that would blow up just a few days later, with the Los Angeles Zoo’s western lowland gorilla Kelly at the center.

A 2014 photo of Kelly catching a treat during a keeper talk at a Roaring Nights event was used in a June 22 article on LAist.com to promote this year’s first Roaring Night. Just five minutes after LAist tweeted the article, a local cartoonist named Nilah Magruder retweeted it, musing, “This gorilla looks like he decided to have this undergrad philosophy lecture outside since it’s a nice day.”

By June 25, the photo paired with Magruder’s hilarious observation was well on its way to “going viral” after being shared on the popular website Reddit, where several Zoo staff recognized Kelly. By that afternoon, the Zoo acknowledged the surge in interest, tweating a screenshot of the Reddit post with the caption: “When the top pic on @reddit is from last week’s Roaring Night at the #LAZoo! lazoo.org/roaringnights.”


“Kelly is a funny boy—big and impressive. If food is involved, he becomes a real ham…”


Within a day, the tweet had reached millions, and numerous comedians with vast Twitter followings had reshared the photo with their own spin on what Kelly might be bloviating about. Popular tweeter Patrick Monahan’s caption, “The only TED Talk I’d pay to see,” instigated the hashtag #TEDTalkGorilla, and, from there, it was a flurry of listicles, think pieces, and even television coverage.

“Kelly is a funny boy—big and impressive,” Animal Keeper Nancy Bunn told Inside Edition. “He acts standoffish at first, then warms up to a crowd. If food is involved, he becomes a real ham for the keeper.” And that’s exactly what Kelly’s “lecture” photo is: a moment where he’s reaching to catch a peanut that’s been tossed his way, and doing it with his own flair.


“I like that the Los Angeles Zoo is getting a bit of buzz from it!”


It wasn’t until June 26 that the Zoo caught wind of some tweets from Magruder in which she acknowledges that her joke had gone viral but that very few sites were providing her with attribution. The silver lining, she observed, was, “I like that the Los Angeles Zoo is getting a bit of buzz from it!” Because of Magruder’s goodwill toward the Zoo and the celebrity that she’d garnered for Kelly, the Zoo invited her to visit and have a behind-the-scenes tour with one of the gorilla keepers. Magruder was thrilled at the opportunity and shared with her many friends and followers her incredible experience learning about gorilla care and conservation. “IT WAS AMAZING,” she tweeted.

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