World’s Oldest Gorilla In Human Care Dies In Her Sleep

Photo by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Colo, a western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in human care, peacefully died in her sleep last night at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She was 60 years old and surpassed the normal life expectancy for wild western lowland gorillas by two decades. As with many species, animals in zoos, especially mammals, live longer than their wild counterparts — see SIX REASONS WHY MOST MAMMALS LIVE LONGER IN ZOOS THAN IN THE WILD . Colo was a mother to three gorillas born at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, a grandmother to 16 (including the first surviving gorilla twins born in a zoological facility in October 1983), a great grandmother to 12, and a great-great grandmother to three.  There are now 16 endangered lowland gorillas residing at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

“At the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium our mantra is to touch the heart to teach the mind. Colo touched the hearts of generations of people who came to see her and those that cared for her over her long lifetime. She was an ambassador for gorillas and inspired people to learn more about the critically endangered species and motivated them to protect gorillas in their native habitat.”

Tom Stalf, president and CEO if The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Colo was born on December 22, 1956 and made history as the first gorilla born in human care. Her name, short for Colombus Ohio, was given to her as a result of a national “Name that Baby Gorilla” contest. It would be another five years after Colo’s birth that the second gorilla would be born in human care and another five years after that until the third. The news about her birth made headlines around the world, including the Today show, the New York Times, and Time and Life magazines. This was a huge milestone, because at the time, little was known about western lowland gorillas, and her birth ushered in an opportunity to collect valuable data, which has helped the conservation efforts of her wild counterparts.

Photo by the Columbus Zoo

Photo by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

In the 1950’s it was typical to keep males and females apart for fear of hurting one another. Warren Thomas, a young keeper and second-year veterinary student, defied the orders of the director and allowed them to be together at night, resulting in Colo’s conception. When Colo was born, she was found unresponsive in her amniotic sac, but Dr. Thomas gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and successfully revived her. Dr. Thomas had a long zoo career and later served as the director for the Los Angeles Zoo from 1974-1991.


Photo by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

The animal care team at the Columbus zoo spent time with Colo’s body this morning and had a chance to say their good byes. The veterinary team will do a full necropsy, a normal procedure upon the death of any animal at zoological facilities. During the necropsy the team hopes to determine if a previous cancer contributed to her death. A tumor was removed from Colo’s arm on December 3, 2016, but the surgeons were able to remove the mass with clean and wide margins. Additionally, blood and tissue samples will be collected for research to learn more about this endangered species. Because some of the microscopy, chemical, and genetic testing takes time, the results of the necropsy may not be available for about a month.

Results from the necropsy can reveal more information about this amazing and endangered species. There are only about 350 gorillas in human care, most of which are western lowland gorillas, and there are about 150,000-250,000 western lowland gorillas, 4,000 eastern lowland gorillas, 880 mountain gorillas, and 300 cross river gorillas left in the world. All species of gorilla are experiencing great population declines due to poaching, habitat loss, and disease. Zoological facilities are a part of the solution and species preservation. They are at the forefront of research and conservation and may very well be the gorilla’s last hope.


Photo by Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

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