Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund

More than 700 people walked, ran or biked through the streets of Austin on Saturday while dressed in gorilla costumes. The gorilla-suited runners, many of whom decked their costumes out with creative accessories, such as ballerina skirts, capes and angel wings, competed in the Austin Gorilla Run, a 5K sponsored by the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, which raises money for a recovering population of mountain gorillas in Africa. Participants completed the 5K Saturday morning at the Mueller Browning Hangar and joined the organization and its many local Austin sponsors for an after-party.

Tammy Pirtle, the second-place winner for most creative costume, ran in the race for the first time.

“I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this before,” Pirtle said. “I just came out to support the cause. I’m from Austin, and this is just so who we are.” 

The Austin Gorilla Run’s growing popularity has brought in all kinds of people to the event. Participating for his second time was 73-year-old Jerry Christiansen from Dripping Springs, who came in first place on his bike.

Clad in distinctively pink gorilla suits, given only to those who raised $300 or more, were runners Anna Woodroe and Elizabeth Wood, who visited from Canada.

“We thought, if we’re going to go to Austin, we better do something,” Woodroe said.

Wood said they wanted to make the most of their trip to Austin.

“So, she Googled ‘weird things to do in Austin, Texas,’ and it came up with the gorilla race,” Wood said.

The Gorilla Runs originated in Denver, Colo., in 2004, but their success allowed for expansion to other cities, such as Austin, Cincinnati and Edmonton, Canada, in 2009.

“We’d met a group of wonderful individuals over here in Austin and I said, ‘Well, our event is weird enough as it is — might as well go down [to Austin] and make it even weirder,’” said Frank Keesling, vice president of the organization and son of Ruth Keesling, its founder.

Debbie Wright, development director at the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, said the fund has pledged more than $350,000 in support of the Ruth Keesling Wildlife Health and Research Center at Makerere University in Uganda, Africa. The center has educated more than 38 wildlife veterinarians who have helped raise the gorilla population of 248 in 1985 to an estimated 880 today. 

“After today, we’ll have raised $35,000 to $40,000,” Keesling said. “And as long as people want to run in gorilla suits, we’ll keep coming back.”

More than 700 runners departed from Austin City Hall for a 5K on Saturday, but this was not your normal race.

The first Austin Gorilla Run benefited the endangered mountain gorillas in Africa by raising more than $40,000, said Unji Udeshi, race director and co-founder. The participants ran the 3.1 miles in gorilla suits, Udeshi said.

“The Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund is dedicated to the conservation and protection of the highly endangered mountain gorillas in Africa, their habitat and working with the people around the national parks,” Udeshi said.

The money will go directly to the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund, helping expand the wildlife department in Makerere University in Uganda and train locals in Central Africa on wildlife conservation.

In the late 1980s, there were only 250 mountain gorillas living in the wild. Because of the fund, there are now more than 700, and none are in captivity, Udeshi said.

“Mountain gorillas are one of our closest relatives, sharing 98.6 percent of our nuclear DNA,” Udeshi said. “This makes them the closest link to mankind, and as a group, we are trying to help save these animals from extinction.”

Paul Underbrink, who has run a lot of 5Ks, including the “Keep Austin Weird Fest and 5K,” said he enjoyed seeing all the variations of the gorilla costumes.

“This is definitely a weird event,” said Underbrink, who dressed as a gorilla in UT paraphernalia and attended the event with his wife, Sherri. “I enjoy the opportunity to get out and run in a good race, and the weather cooperated. You see events like this every now and then reported and you think, ‘I could do that.’ I heard this was the first one they were doing and there were a bunch of people signed up and I thought, ‘Okay, sign me up.’”

Saleswoman Adrienne Nelson attended the event with friends who were dressed as ballerinas.
“I participated in the Capitol 10,000,” Nelson said. “People dress up and do group costumes, but I think this is the craziest 5K Austin’s ever seen.”

Although participants paid $99.95 if they needed a gorilla suit and $50 if they already had one, Nelson said the organization is doing good work.

“It’s expensive, but it goes to save the gorillas,” Nelson said. “And outside the age of three, when do you get to dress up as a gorilla in a tutu? That’s really the cherry on top.”