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Beautiful Colo

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How I wish I could know what she's thinking.

Colo the western lowland gorilla is a gorilla of firsts. She was the first gorilla to be born in captivity, anywhere in the world. Her parents, Millie and Baron Macombo, were wild caught by "Gorilla Bill" Said of Bexley, Ohio, in what was then French Cameroon. They arrived in New York on December 22, 1950, and the Columbus Zoo agreed to take them on since they had no planned destination. It was an historic decision. Six years later, on December 22, 1956, Millie gave birth to Colo (short for Columbus), starting a string of "firsts" in the captive breeding of gorillas. Before Colo's birth, we didn't even know the gestation period of gorillas, which turns out to be about 250 days.

Colo's daughter Emmy was the first second-generation captive bred gorilla in the world, and her granddaughter Cora was the first third-generation captive bred gorilla. Colo was also grandmother to the first gorilla twins ever born in the western hemisphere, and the first surviving gorilla to be conceived by artificial insemination was also a grandchild of Colo's.

The Columbus Zoo has paved the way for other zoos in creating naturalistic habitats for their gorillas, including a huge outdoor play area rife with climbing equipment, swings and ropes. Here, the animals blossom and relate to each other much as they would in the wild, in family groups.

Colo is the oldest gorilla in the world. On December 22, 2009, she celebrated her 53rd birthday. It doesn't seem all that old to me, but gorillas age differently from humans. So little genetic distance between us, and yet we're so different. Colo's got some pretty bad arthritis to deal with, something a wild gorilla might not live long enough to develop. She takes an arthritis drug approved for humans each day.

I know. Every time I eat something, I have to dig part of it back out, too, Colo. Comes with the territory for primates of a certain age.

I became curious about the glass that separates the gorillas from people, so I asked zoo docent Sue Roberts whether they could see us as well as we can see them. "Oh yes!" she replied. And she went on to say that they love watching people--it's a kind of enrichment for them to have someone to observe. Colo seemed very contemplative, but her eyes moved around as she took note of our behavior.
Our kids were rapt, watching her watch them.
And very respectful of this old lady, this gorilla of many firsts. And it's all happened right here in Ohio.

Here's Sue's snapshot of Colo after she finished opening her last present at her 53rd birthday party last December 22. Tuckered out and full of cake.

photo by Sue Allison Roberts

For a lovely video of Colo's 53rd birthday celebration, click here.

Thanks again to Sue Roberts for helping open the world of Columbus' gorillas to me.

I'm spending part of this rainy Sunday canning blog preserves, including a step-by-step series on a complex watercolor of battling prairie chickens. I'm putting the finishing touches on the painting as I write. Not sure why each painting I start is more challenging than the last, but I'm choosing to take it as a positive sign. It feels great to be painting again. Thanks for your understanding.


I had no idea about Colo's firsts. Thanks for that. I wonder what she thought about Phoebe's hair :o)
I'm so glad you're painting - stretching your creative soul. Good for you.

Great Blog post Julie! The book titled "Gorillas in our Midst" is a great read and highlights the spectacular story behind the zoo's acquisition of, and history about, the gorillas. Colo is very special...her birth a complete surprise to zoo staff - at the time (thanks to a smart bit of engineering by a savvy keeper back in the day). If you get a chance, have a listen to this podcast: Scroll to Colo's photo - number five from top of list. (also available on iTunes). Ti's one of my all time fave podcasts, I can't bring myself to delete it, despite having listened many times over! She is a marvel, a very special gorilla, it's wonderful to see that she's doing well! Thanks heaps for taking the time to post this lovely write up...I love reading ALL your stuff!! Makes my day, I tell ya!! :)

Crys from rainy Buckeye Lake

Posted by Anonymous January 24, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Not sure I can articulate this properly, but here goes. A couple weeks ago I watched an amazing "Nature" documentary on hummingbirds. Learned so much. Saw so many amazing, close-up, high-tech photos. Wondered what would happen to the slower, more reflective art of naturalist painting. Glad you are taking a break from this to do that.

I love that photo of Colo by herself contemplating. I've never been a huge fan of Gorillas but she looks absolutely beautiful to me in that photo. I love it. Always you are broadening my horizins. You have the wonderful ability to write in a way that is interesting no matter the topic! It makes me want to learn more!

Thank you!


Posted by Anonymous January 24, 2010 at 3:59 PM

There's something about Gorillas that just makes me feel so sad...the fact that they're hunted and harmed I it's nice to hear that there are places in NA where they can be safe and live a quasi normal life. Certainly beats being in harm's way continually.

After enlarging Colo's first photo here, I know I could sit for hours watching her watching me.

Alright Julie, you've sold me - I need to go to the zoo this year. Get my nose out of beautiful southeast Ohio and get up to Columbus and see the animals. I haven't been in years. I'm psyched to go. Thank you for sharing your magnificent trip with us, lady Science Chimp.

I too am sold--I had thought zoos somewhat archaic, but your series has convinced of their value. That is especially true as we humans put more and more stress on the environment, wiping out animals in droves.
I read in yesterday's Times that authorities now admit having captured the last jaguar in the wild in Arizona--which they then released, but apparently stressed so much it was seen not moving (via radio tag collar) and subsequently put down. Oh my--how far will we humans go?

Good on yer, Colo! I grew up visiting Massa, who died in 1984 a few hours after his 54th birthday. He'd been the pet of a New York woman who surrendered him to the zoo when he was about 4. Although he was loved and well-treated at the zoo, he lived alone in a concrete-floored iron-barred enclosure -- like a lifer in prison. Although their lives are much richer in today's zoos, I still find seeing the gorillas unsettling. They're so close to us in so many ways, I find myself thinking "There but for the grace of evolution go I." I feel as if I should apologize to them.

I neglected to mention that Massa was at the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation's oldest.

I'm probably the only one who read this post title as a link and thought it was going to be about a trip to Colorado.

Very neat lady gorilla!

Memories! One of the very first things I did, upon being moved to Ohio, was run-don't-walk to the Columbus Zoo to see these gorillas. Even then I did not pick up on the fact that CZ was home to the all these firsts.

The OKC Zoo used to pride itself on keeping up with the Columbus Zoo on the success of apes in breeding captivity. Proud to say that back in the 80's the good ole folks of OKC funded a $6.6 million dollar exhibit that relocated the apes to a six-acre plot featuring three acres of naturalistic habitats for two separate troops of apes.

Y'all remember the story a few yrs. back of the gorilla who saved the youngster that fell into its enclosure:

(sorry, it may begin with an ad)

Julie, I really enjoyed this post about Colo. It was interesting to read the zoo docent's comments that the gorillas enjoy watching us as much as we like seeing them. I have always read their expression as one of wonder and incredulity, as in "Why am I the one in the cage?" But maybe I'm just projecting my own thoughts on to these magnificent and ultimately unfathomable creatures.

Posted by Anonymous January 26, 2010 at 7:30 AM

As always I am thrilled to read your posts, Julie, but, your series on the zoo has touched my heart even more! I LOVED seeing the posts from people that have decided to come to visit our zoo because of YOU! THANKS so MUCH!!

I know that many people feel the gorillas are "sad" when seeing their faces. But try to rememeber...when you see gorillas in the wild...they look the same way. Gorillas are the original "couch potatoes". They love to eat and sleep...and sometimes play a little. You can see these same behaviors at our gorilla habitat. Some will interact with the public, some just watch us as we watch them. Maybe they wonder "What do these hairless-apes DO all day?"

Same as being not a bad life.
Dian Fossey thought our gorillas were extremely "sane" and "happy". A HUGE statement coming from a woman that hated zoos at the time.

If we can help people connect....touch their hearts...then maybe more and more people will begin to care about their wild gorilla cousins. Then maybe, just maybe, we can all help to save these magnificent endangered animals in the wild.

Oops...Sorry, Julie...didn't mean to get on a soap box! :-)

Sue Roberts
Docent, Columbus Zoo

Posted by Anonymous January 27, 2010 at 7:39 AM

I'm still torn about the value of a zoo. From an educational perspective it is somewhat valuable, although those attending should not confuse zoo behaviour with wild behaviour. From an entertainment perspective it is entertaining for people not for the animals.

I still think all animals would be happier in the wild. It is a sad, sad statement that we have ruined so much of the animal's natural environment that they can no longer enjoy the natural world.

Most of all it is a very sad statement about Homo sapien. That's what Colo is thinking and I'llbet she has known it long time. Makes you wonder who is smarter.

Bill, I appreciate your sentiment and share some of it. We'd all prefer to see animals in the wild, but most of us don't have the chance. I'd encourage you to re-read Sue's comment (directly above yours) for the perspective of someone who has spent several years observing Colo and her troop. Yes, she looks contemplative; even sad, but that doesn't necessarily mean that she is. My son often asks me what I'm sad about, and I have to remind him that my mouth corners are naturally headed south and it has nothing to do with my true mood!

Remember that Colo is captive-born and knows no other life. We can't know what she's thinking, but it's doubtful that she's yearning for the African lowlands. Colo and other gorillas in zoo situations should be looked upon as vital ambassadors for their kind; that she has a long lineage of captive-born children and grandchildren makes her invaluable. Yes, it's tragic that wild gorillas are still subject to heartless poaching and rampant habitat loss. But zoos hold a keystone to conservation of animals in the wild, and they have come a long way from the sideshow attraction days to being key players with conservation organizations worldwide. I'd encourage you to visit your local zoo and rethink things. See all they're doing to help conserve animals in the wild--as well as display them to urbanites. Talk to a docent like Sue and see if you don't come away with a brighter view of the whole situation. I did!

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