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On Beasts and Books

An author sits comfortably outdoors with a children’s picture book on her lap.
“I have a very special connection to Angela,” says Angela & Lulingu author Brenda Scott Royce. “Now that’s totally one-sided, she has no idea. To her, I’m just one more person who likes to come and look at her at the Zoo. But she will always be special to me, have a special place in my heart.” Photo by Jamie Pham

“I always say that my career combines my love for beasts and books,” says GLAZA Senior Editor and author Brenda Scott Royce. Her new book, Angela & Lulingu: Two Gorillas, A World Apart, is being launched to celebrate World Gorilla Day at the Zoo. “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write. And as long as I can remember, I’ve loved primates, specifically great apes. But I never knew what that would mean in my life. Who would have dreamed when I was a little kid at the Bronx Zoo, just enthralled by the chimpanzees, that I could write a book about gorillas?”

Royce started her career at an L.A.-based book publisher. “The publisher did a lot of entertainment books, so I edited books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal, and wrote one about Party of Five. And, you know, that is cool and fun. But then a book came across my desk about a monkey. And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it would be so amazing to edit a book about a monkey.’ And then I really wanted to do more books like that.”

Soon she left her desk job to work as a chimp caregiver at Wildlife Waystation and to join the research department of the L.A. Zoo, where she started out as an intern observing chimps and orangutans. Thinking of her first steps toward combining her two passions, Royce remembers, “I just wanted to clean up after chimps and take care of chimps and go to the zoo and observe chimps and orangutans. Like, I was in heaven. It wasn’t an actual career at that time, so I kind of was going broke. Happily broke.”

Royce enrolled in evening classes at Cal State Fullerton so she could pursue a bachelors in anthropology with a specialization in primatology. “Because why else do you go to college except to study something that you love? I didn’t want to study journalism or anything useful,” she jokes. “But everyone would ask me, ‘What are you going to do with a degree in primatology?’ And my grandmother would say, ‘Why are you going to monkey school?’ And I’d say, ‘I have no idea. Maybe I’ll follow Jane Goodall around and ask if I can edit stuff she writes.’ I literally had no plan, because I wasn’t thinking career. I was just thinking, ‘I like this. I’ll study this.’”

And then, “The job opened up for Director of Publications for GLAZA,” she remembers, “which to me was the best job in the world, combining writing and animals.” When she started at GLAZA, she would often suggest that the Zoo should publish its own kids’ books, “but I never pushed it,” she recalls. “The first person who would say, ‘Well, we don’t have the budget’ or ‘We don’t have a book publishing program,’ I would accept that as the answer.”

It took years and another big life change to bring her idea back into the spotlight. In 2019, Royce returned to school for a master’s in conservation biology, and it was during this program that the idea for Angela & Lulingu took shape. “I was focusing on storytelling and conservation, and I had to come up with a project. I thought I would really love to do a children’s book about some of our zoo animals. I didn’t know the story yet.” Initially, she decided to focus on the L.A. Zoo’s then-infant gorilla Angela and to take advantage of the amazing photography GLAZA has from Angela’s earliest days. But from a storytelling perspective, there was a problem. Being a healthy, happy gorilla, which is exactly what we hope for all gorillas, Angela’s tale didn’t have a dramatic story arc.

Royce had an idea. “I thought of GRACE [Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education] in Africa, the sanctuary that we work with. All of their gorillas [including a youngster named Lulingu who is closest to Angela’s age] are orphans. Their parents and families were wiped out by the illegal wildlife trade. Young gorillas go there after a trauma, and they’re rehabilitated and cared for and then eventually introduced into the group that lives in protected habitat at GRACE. Then hopefully, one day, some will be re-released into the wild. So Lulingu’s story has some heartbreak—and hope—which is important for a kids’ book.”

Lulingu’s story also illustrates the work zoos do as conservation organizations and how gorillas in human care are connected to the thriving of wild gorillas. “That was important to me,“ Royce explains. The L.A. Zoo’s role as a conservation leader motivates Royce, and she’s eager to share about it with young readers. “Anytime that you can slip in those conservation messages without hitting them over the head with it, that’s exciting. It’s a great opportunity.” There’s a way to do it smartly, though. Royce writes so “kids can see, can learn, get excited about wildlife, can relate to the animals in some way. I wanted to show these two gorillas have very different stories, but they have some things very much in common. In that way, kids can feel empathy and compassion and love for them—and learn some facts and biology,” she laughs, then becomes thoughtful. “You want to lay the seeds for the future; when they get older, hopefully then they’ll feel empowered to take action.”

Royce is no stranger to taking action. “At the beginning, I asked myself what I would do if I could do anything. And I would work with a primate sanctuary in Africa and publish a kids’ book for the L.A. Zoo. It was kind of like a goosebump moment, because I thought, ‘Oh, I have this idea and maybe it can actually happen.’ I have to remind myself, No, I made it happen. What I learned is that, yes, I can. I can do it. But it was a whole series of events that had to start with me deciding. So, it’s not luck. It’s partial luck, and it’s the fact that I asked those questions and knocked on those doors and reached out and asked.”

The first door she knocked on belonged to Zoo Director and CEO Denise Verret, who also serves on the board of directors for GRACE. “I went to get her blessing to do interviews and talk to our animal care staff for the book, which at that time was just a school project, and she said, ‘I think the Zoo should actually publish this book.’ And I nearly burst into tears.” 

Then the real work began. Royce set up interviews with staff at the Zoo and GRACE, the latter via ZOOM, which required navigating time and language differences. “What I wanted them to know is I deeply respect and appreciate what they do. It’s so important. Being a keeper anywhere is a very arduous job, and I wanted to be very respectful and understanding and appreciative of their time.” Satisfying so many parties with the book and its contents was a balancing act. And there were the deadlines. And shipping delays. And a global pandemic.

But finally, Angela & Lulingu is ready. “Bringing it to life from a crazy idea that might never happen to an actual book that guests can now purchase in our gift shop: that, to me, is kind of crazy,” Royce says. “I’m just so happy to have this story out in the world. That’s all I care about.”