adventure journal photo by scott chacon

Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere it wants.

This is the joke that launched the idiom that gave gorillas everywhere a complex. Here’s the rub: no one knows who started it and the thing has perpetuated more lies than the National Enquirer.

To set the record straight, gorillas do not weigh anywhere near 800 pounds. A healthy, mature male silverback will push 300-400 pounds, 440 tops. Some males in captivity have indeed reached 600 pounds, which is a sad and unhealthy state of affairs where humans have allowed the primates to become obese.

The other myth of the 800-pound gorilla meme is the inference of wanton aggression. Gorillas, in general, are pretty chill. They live in troops in the lowland and mountain forests of Central Africa, grooming each other, noshing a vegetarian diet, and moving each day in search of food and good nap. Even the alpha males aren’t afraid to show their soft side and cuddle and play with the babies of the troop.

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From nature articles to Hollywood, the image of the pissed off, charging gorilla persists. By all means, dominant males will fight to stay on top of the heap among their troop if necessary. He’ll throw down with a can of whoop ass because he has responsibilities as the head honcho. He is the security detail for all, so he’ll make sure his presence is respected by the troop and intruders, alike.

A 400-pound primate barreling at you has to be equally pants-pissing scary as we would imagine the fake 800-pound variety to be. Who’s counting at that point, right? Here’s a secret. There’s a 99 percent chance the charge is a bluff.

Gorillas don’t want a fight; they just don’t want you harshing their mellow. So a male silverback will beat his chest, howl, charge to an abrupt halt in front of you, then charge with speed, and (most of the time) fly right by.

Before you get cocky, we are still talking a 300- to 400-pound bundle of muscle, intellect, and intuition. The pattern may not be to legitimately attack, but patterns aren’t rules – just suggestions. If it comes down to a genuine confrontation between you and Mr. Silverback, you don’t stand a chance.

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Photo by Scott Chacon.