Gorilla Greats, Part 1: Queen Colo

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Last month the Columbus Zoo announced the birth of a female gorilla, Jamani, to mother Cassie and father Ktembe (son of Mandara at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo). The zoo’s press release noted that Jamani is the 33rd gorilla to be born at the zoo and Colo’s 12th great-grandchild. Simply, this baby descends from royalty. Colo was a famous gorilla who led an amazing life of superlatives—first gorilla born in captivity, first gorilla to give birth in captivity, oldest gorilla in captivity, most accurate spitter, to name a few. Her existence put the Columbus Zoo on the map, and much of what we know today about captive gorillas can be credited to Jamani’s amazing great-grandmother, Colo.

When Columbus big-game hunter Bill Said delivered three gorillas to the Columbus Zoo from Africa in 1951, he had no idea how priceless these youngsters were. They cost the zoo $10,000, but you could not put a price on their legacy. Two of them, Millie Christina and Baron Macombo, would eventually become the parents of Colo in 1956—the world’s first gorilla born in captivity. The third gorilla, Christopher, was traded to the zoo in Basel, Switzerland, and renamed Stephi. Stephi sired the world’s second (Goma) and third (Jambo) gorillas born in captivity in 1959 and 1961.[1] Who would have thought these gorillas would become so valuable?

Baron Macombo and Millie Christina arrived in Columbus on January 15, 1951.
Baron Macombo and Millie Christina arrived in Columbus on January 15, 1951. Source: Flickr

Truth be told, Colo wasn’t even supposed to exist. When Millie and Baron (“Mac”) arrived in Columbus, their ages were estimated at around two and five, and as they grew older Mac became quite large and aggressive. The staff were given strict orders from the zoo’s director, Earl Davis, to keep the two gorillas in separate enclosures for fear that they would injure each other, even though the ultimate goal was to breed them. One of the part-time keepers, however, observed other, more flirtatious behaviors, with Millie backing up to him through the mesh. To test his suspicions, second-year veterinary student Warren Thomas started allowing Millie and Mac (now 8 and 11 years old) to spend the night together. When Thomas arrived early the next morning he would separate them so that no one discovered the secret rendezvous.

As Millie’s behaviors changed to indicate she might be pregnant, Thomas had to reveal his secret. When he informed Earl Davis of his “unruly” actions, the boss was, to Thomas’s relief, extremely elated. The question was, if Millie was indeed to give birth—when? No one knew the gestation period of a gorilla. Assuming it was about the same as a human, they expected the baby to arrive around January 8, 1957.

Columbus was a place where they took chances, and their reputation grew because of it. —former gorilla keeper Beth Armstrong

Their suspicions were indeed confirmed, but their gift arrived a few weeks early. When Warren Thomas was making his rounds in the ape house on the morning of December 22, 1956, he found Millie in the corner of her enclosure with a three-pound baby girl, still in the amniotic sac, at her feet. As adrenaline kicked in, unconcerned about being attacked by the new mother, he reached in and grabbed the newborn and rushed it to the kitchen. He recalled in an interview, “From then on I didn’t even know my name—I was just a machine.” He tore open the sac to find baby Colo unresponsive, not breathing:

Upending her, he slapped her back and buttocks—a shock stimulus. No response. He fingered out a mucous mass that blocked her throat, slapped her again and again. She gasped once. He pounded her. Another gasp. Then no response. “How long I worked, God only knows.” Then he conducted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He pumped air into her lungs for more than a minute. Then “all at once the respiratory center kicked in. She took a deep breath—and was on her own.”

After the fifteen-minute scare, Thomas wrapped baby Colo in towels and took her to the warm boiler room. Warren Thomas became a star that day.[2]

News of the historical birth traveled fast. TV networks and reporters called, the Columbus mayor handed out cigars, the zoological world celebrated. The Columbus Dispatch called her the “most newsworthy newcomer in the world” that day. Life magazine deemed it a “historic blessed event.”

Columbus Dispatch front-page headline, December 23, 1956.
Columbus Dispatch front-page headline, December 23, 1956.
Newborn Colo wrapped in blankets
Warren Thomas keeping watch over baby Colo.
Warren Thomas keeping watch over baby Colo. Photo: Columbus Monthly
Photo of Colo in Life (January 14, 1957)
Life (January 14, 1957)

Within the first few weeks of the celebrity’s life, officials from ten different zoos visited her. Director of Toledo Zoo, Philip Skeldon, called the birth “world shaking,” and Robert Bean of the Brookfield Zoo described her as “the most beautiful ugly thing I’ve ever seen.”

Curator of Mammals, Louis DiSabato, feeding Colo in January 1957
Curator of Mammals, Louis DiSabato, feeding Colo in January 1957. Photo: Columbus Monthly

So, how do you take care of a baby gorilla? With no “manual” available, the zoo figured they would treat it like a human baby. “Cuddles”—as she was called before receiving her official name—had an around-the-clock care team and fed formula and vitamins, with a diaper change every 15 minutes. The caretakers recorded everything—baby’s actions, moods, growth, vital signs. A local pediatrician served as a consultant. Plans didn’t include placing the baby back with Millie. Given the mother’s demeanor after the birth, and also that she was not given the opportunity to witness parenting skills in the wild, the zoo felt it was too much of a risk to reunite them.

What they discovered is that gorilla babies grow up quickly! Local newspapers reported her development milestones—weight gains, new teeth, adorable smiles, new outfits. The name “Colo” (a combination of “Columbus” and “Ohio”) was selected from a local naming contest that garnered thousands of entries. (Clark Gable even offered a $100 bond to the winner.)  And as if she wasn’t given enough attention, a husband-and-wife research team at Ohio State University made regular visits to study her physical and mental development. What they discovered is that during the early months, gorillas develop (sitting, standing, walking) about twice as fast as human babies.

Colo showing off her first teeth
Toofers! Photo: Ohio History Connection
Colo posing for the camera
Baby Colo poses for the camera. Photo: Columbus Zoo

With Colo growing faster than anticipated, the zoo had to plan quickly. Shortly after the zoo opened to visitors for the season, they completed an $11,000 nursery with large glass windows for public viewing and a state-of-the-art heating system. They also began planning a new ape house, as the zoo was ready to start reintroducing Millie and Baron. Luckily helping their budget, their little celebrity attracted more than a million visitors to the zoo in 1957. (This attendance record lasted more than thirty years, until giant pandas arrived for a six-month stay in 1992.)

As one can imagine, Colo’s care team of five nurses spoiled her rotten. They played with the rambunctious toddler constantly, dressed her in adorable outfits, and fed her the finest baby foods. They would laugh as she put bowls on her head as hats and paraded around. (Her habit of spitting directly in their eyes probably was not as cute.) Zoo director Earl Davis soon realized that treating her like a little human was beginning to pose a problem—although it was common practice during that time. What she needed, he determined, was a gorilla playmate.

Colo in her Easter dress
Colo in her Easter dress. Photo: Columbus Monthly
Colo photo in Life (February 24, 1958)
Life (February 24, 1958)

That playmate (and anticipated, eventual breeding partner) arrived in October of 1958—an 18-month-old gorilla named Bongo—purchased for $5,000 from Africa. Bongo was about six months younger than Colo, so he was smaller and intimidated by her. He eventually lost his shyness and became the perfect companion for Colo—in fact, her mate for the next twenty-five years. A few years later, as the growing gorillas became stronger, Colo bent the bars of her enclosure and escaped (luckily into the arms of a caretaker). After that stunt, she and Bongo were sent to their new $80,000 ape house a bit earlier than planned!

Photo of young Colo and Bongo
Colo and Bongo. Photo from Columbus Monthly.

In 1963, the Columbus Zoo’s world-class gorilla program was nearly eliminated by tuberculosis. Eleven primates—including Colo, her parents, Bongo, and a few chimpanzees and orangutans—tested positive for the disease believed to be deadly in primates. There were discussions of destroying the afflicted primates to halt the outbreak. The local Dispatch ran a front-page headline announcing that Colo likely had 90 days to live. However, as former keeper Beth Armstrong noted, “Columbus was a place where they took chances.” That chance was the human medication for TB, given to the primates in either orange juice or gelatin. Thankfully, the disease was caught early, most of the apes were asymptomatic, and they recovered with no aftereffects. The new ape house also displayed the primates behind glass, so there was no danger of passing it to the visitors. If Colo had not been so famous, the lives of those primates might not have been spared.

Front-page headline, Columbus Dispatch (March 11, 1963)
Front-page headline, Columbus Dispatch (March 11, 1963)

As the health scare faded, and Colo and Bongo grew healthier and stronger into adulthood together, the cycle of Millie and Mac’s tumultuous relationship started to surface in the younger couple. Living in a 12′ x 15′ cage with cement floors and no enrichment, and Bongo now weighing 300 pounds, temperament problems started to develop. Would Colo and Bongo need to be separated to keep them safe?

Fortunately for the zoo, history repeated itself. On February 2, 1968, Colo gave birth to a baby girl, the first second-generation birth in captivity, and again about a month earlier than expected. Colo was gentle with the baby, but no nursing was witnessed for three days. The fear of tuberculosis exposure also made keeping the baby in an incubator an easy decision. Columbus was now the only zoo in the world that housed three generations of gorillas.

Press photo of Emmy, Colo’s first child. Caption: Columbus, Ohio, April 16, 1969. Camera shy—Emmy, a 14-month-old gorilla at the Columbus Zoo, poses nicely for her portrait, but then she became shy and turned her back on the camera.

To the disappointment of the many punsters who called the zoo suggesting the name “Coca” to go with mother “Colo,” the baby was named Emmy—after Columbus mayor M. E. Sensenbrenner—in a naming contest. She made her public debut in early April that year. She was spoiled just as much as her mother, and treated like the royalty she was—but with perhaps a few more hand-me-downs.

Three generations of gorillas at the Columbus Zoo
Source: Flickr

Colo and Bongo did not waste much time building their family. Their next child, the first male born in captivity, arrived on July 18, 1969, sharing front-page headlines with the Apollo 11 moon mission. He was also pulled from his twelve-year-old mother for the safety of the incubator. He was named Oscar, an award to go along with an Emmy, despite the vocal public suggestions of “Apollo.”

Baby Oscar, Columbus Dispatch (October 24, 1969)
Columbus Dispatch (October 24, 1969)

To complete the trio of famous awards, daughter “Toni” arrived to everyone’s surprise a few years later on December 28, 1971. No one at the zoo knew Colo was pregnant! Again, Toni was human-reared, as in the early 1970s that was still considered the best chance of developing healthy babies. Toni still resides at the Columbus Zoo and serves as the heart of their famous surrogate program.

When a family begins grow too big for its house, an upgrade is warranted. Despite having a world-renowned gorilla program, however, the Columbus Zoo fell on hard financial times in the 1960s and ’70s. At one point there was even discussions about selling Colo’s children or shutting down the zoo entirely. The zoo got a $2.5 million boost in 1967 with the approval of a bond issue passed by county voters, and again in 1975 with a $4.2 million bond. “Colo literally helped keep the Columbus Zoo alive back in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Jack Hanna.

The zoo didn’t really get the complete boost it needed, however, until 1978, when Jack Hanna accepted the position of director. He had a lot of work to do to turn around an ailing zoo, but Jack had a knack for garnering support from big donors and city officials. One of the first needs he addressed was modernizing the gorilla space. He was ashamed that these famous gorillas, the heart of the zoo, lived in small, antiquated cages with no access to the outdoors. “They’ve never seen grass. They’ve never jumped in a tree,” he lamented. He figured out a way to give the gorillas the space they needed on a small budget by renovating an old elephant space. The zoo community essentially built it themselves in 120 days. It brought the staff together and built morale, which was sorely needed at the zoo during that time. And to think how many smiling faces there were on that day in May 1979 when the gorillas set foot on grass for the first time. It’s a shame that Colo’s mother, Millie, could not be a part of the celebration. Sadly, she passed away in 1976 of cancer at the age of 27.

The new housing allowed for Colo, Bongo, and their three children to live together in a cageless area. (Mac, Colo’s father, was not placed with them because two silverbacks in the presence of females would likely fight.) The zoo acknowledged that while living together they would probably breed with each other, but “studies in the wild have not shown inbreeding to be a problem,” said Stan Brock, host of the TV show Wild Kingdom, who was visiting his friend Jack Hanna. And breed with each other they did. In April 1979 Colo’s youngest daughter, Toni, gave birth to a daughter, Cora. The birth was announced in the New York Times: “the first fourth generation of the captive gorilla and a world record.” And the father . . . Toni’s brother, Oscar. (In fact, Toni’s first three of her seven children were fathered by her brother.[3])

Cora, daughter of Toni and granddaughter of Colo
Cora, daughter of Toni and granddaughter of Colo. Photo: Columbus Dispatch

Colo spent the 1980s not only being a grandmother several times over, but also being a “mother” again. Sadly, her first-born, Emmy, passed away in 1982 at the age of thirteen at the Cleveland Zoo, due to inflammation of the abdomen. (She had been sent to Cleveland on loan to prevent more inbreeding.) In October 1983, however, her family again made history. She became a grandmother x 2! Her son, Oscar, the fruitful breeder, sired the first twins born in the Western Hemisphere. Mother Bridgette, after suffering a couple of miscarriages, brought sons Baron Macombo II and Mosuba into the world, and returned the Columbus Zoo to the national spotlight.  (Mosuba was named in honor of three dedicated ape house volunteers: Molly, Sue, and Barb.)

Macombo II and Mosuba
Macombo II and Mosuba. Photo: Columbus Dispatch
Jack Hanna with twins Macombo II and Mosuba.
Jack Hanna with the twins. Photo: Facebook

Visitors also flooded to the zoo to get a glimpse of the twins, who added to an already lively gorilla family in the ape house. The zoo saw a much-needed increase in gate receipts that year, and Good Morning America arrived to air the twins’ first four birthday parties.

With the number of gorillas increasing via breeding loans, the Columbus gorilla program was growing and thriving. This received an added boost by a 1984 visit from famous gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, who, although not a fan of zoos in general, applauded Columbus’s gorilla program and educated the keepers on how they could further enrich the apes’ lives. She instructed them on how gorillas need materials to build sleeping nests, tree branches (browse) for snacking, small bits of food for which gorillas would spend time foraging, and she encouraged the keepers to simulate mixed-age family groups that you would find in the wild. Fossey even enjoyed her visit in Columbus so much that she spent four extra days with the gorilla team. Shortly thereafter, a $650,000 upgraded gorilla habitat opened. The “Gorilla Villa” featured an outdoor jungle canopy with climbing ropes and swings. According to Jack Hanna, it took the gorillas several months to get used to this area—they didn’t know what to do with a rope! Hanna was also happy that the gorillas now had private spaces in the indoor area to enter when they needed privacy, as well as expanded enclosures and more enrichment to stimulate them on a daily basis.

The gorilla program experienced a big blow that year in June, however, with the death of Colo’s father, Baron Macombo, the “gentle giant” who at the age of 38 was the third oldest gorilla in captivity. The zoo held a public memorial service for him on zoo grounds, and hundreds of keepers, volunteers, and visitors turned out to honor the patriarch. According to Jack Hanna, “I have had questions asking if this (the funeral) is necessary. He made the city of Columbus famous all over the world in 1956. His memory lives on through his child, his three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. That is something you can’t say about any gorilla in the world.” Mac was buried near the ape house, and his gravestone is visible as you enter the building today.

Baron Macombo's grave at the Columbus Zoo

Despite the loss of its first generation, the Columbus gorilla program, with the help of Fossey, had its first true mixed family group: Colo, silverback Mumbah (who had arrived from Howlett’s Zoo in England), females Bathsheba and Lulu, Toni and Oscar’s young daughter Cora, and twins Mac and Mosuba. Colo had fancied the twins from the start, and Mumbah never showed any aggression towards them, so the keepers felt the family group would be a positive place for them spend childhood. Colo had their youngsters’ backs, but she would certainly let them know when they became too rowdy!

Because her motherly instincts were so strong with the twins, when Toni gave birth to J. J. (“Jungle Jack”) in 1987 but showed no interest in raising him, Colo was chosen as a surrogate mother. It was the right choice. “When Colo lifted J. J. up and put him on her back, it was incredible,” said keeper Charlene Jendry. Beth Armstrong recalled, “They slept and ate together transferred together, working out their own daily dance of sorts. And every day their bond strengthened as they better learned each other’s patterns and personalities.” J. J. became a member of Mumbah’s family group with the raucous twins, but again Colo kept them all in check. One day, when J. J. had too much of the terror he would sent up a distress call. Colo ran over and pinned one of the twins on his back and grumbled angrily. Armstrong said, “it scared the piss right out of him, literally.” After the hard lesson, even the twins allowed J. J. to ride on their backs and began hanging out with him. As Colo entered her thirties, she had over a dozen grandchildren and became the mother she was never allowed to be.

That opportunity unintendedly came again in her early forties with the arrival of her great-grandson Jontu in 1997.[4] Mother (and Toni’s daughter) Jumoke was an attentive mother, but Jontu bonded most strongly with Colo. Even in her late forties, as she began to seek a solo life after developing some arthritis, she would interact with the youngsters through the mesh. Because of Colo, Columbus’s reputation as one of the best surrogacy programs in the world was solidified.

In their accounts of Colo one theme that always comes up: her beauty and intelligence. Described by a local reporter, “her distinctive heart-shape brow is a crown, raised high on her head as she watches her people come and go. She is the Queen.” She loved wearing paper as necklaces and would wear as many things as she could as hats—coconut shells, food bowls, wood wool…. Former keeper Mike Zedekar tells the story of how Colo had her own baseball cap. Zedekar often wore his own cap while at work, and, one day while cleaning outside her cage, he turned it backwards. Colo copied him. He turned it sideways, and she again followed suit. When her hat was not at her disposal, she would often try to steal his.

Colo wearing a hat
Colo loved hats. Photo: Columbus Zoo

Colo is one of the most beautiful gorillas I will ever meet. The contours of her face are heart shaped; her brown eyes are penetrating with an unusual rim of light gray around each iris. Her hands and feet are long and narrow. Her fingers and toes are equally long. In a word, they are elegant. Her coal-black skin is flawlessly uniform, her thick hair coat healthy and a deep black. She has grayed out as she has gotten older, but she has none of the reddish hair on her head that many of our other females have. She reminds me of a New York City matron from a well-to-do family: always smartly turned out, hair and makeup in place, wearing the perfect Chanel suit. —Beth Armstrong

She was always the first to figure out new enrichment and often even outsmarted the keepers. Even from an early age she had a knack for escaping her nursery and a few times in adulthood gave her keepers a few scares. In 1984 she was found outside her enclosure sitting on a 55-gallon drum of monkey biscuits, eating, with a padlock in her other hand. Once she saw the veterinarian’s dart gun she voluntarily returned to her area.

“She is a unique combination of human intelligence and gorilla intelligence,” noted former head keeper Dianna Frisch. She once yanked a toothbrush out of a keeper’s hands and started brushing her own teeth in that “I can do it myself!” way. Beth Armstrong recounted a story that showed just how smart Colo was. When Colo lived adjacent to a nursery, she spied a treasure in that next enclosure. As soon as a caretaker took the infant away to be fed, Colo maneuvered a tree branch under the mesh and fished out a set of plastic keys, a potential health hazard. When keeper Charlene Jendry noticed that Colo had the toy hidden under her foot, in the typical way of negotiating she offered her a few peanuts in exchange. Holding out for a better reward, Colo balked. When Jendry returned with pieces of pineapple, Colo was ready to trade and held up the toy. She, however, knew how to maximize the reward—she took each key off one at a time and handed it to the keeper. “She traded me piece by piece. We were going at her pace, not mine, and we both knew it,” Jendry said. In the end, Colo scored several pieces of pineapple! Her ultimate prize, however, was a Frosty from Wendy’s, but that was saved for special occasions.

Colo certainly had her favorite caretakers and her not-so-favorite ones. “Her spits were fast and accurate,” recalls keeper Dan Nellis. One day Jendry noticed Colo spitting in Dan’s face. She asked Colo if after two years of blasting him if she could quit. Colo replied by spitting in her face! “Then she figured out I wasn’t going to leave and she started hitting on me,” Nellis said. “They tell you not to get attached, but you can’t help it.”

Colo had a tender side, though. One moment when it shined was when she was paid a visit in 1998 by the man who saved her life as a newborn—Warren Thomas. Keeper Audra Meinelt recalled the interaction: “Although Colo is a sociable animal, she does not seek out extra attention from the keeper staff the way some of the other gorillas do. When Thomas came to visit, Colo was in the back of her room … and began moving her lips as if she was blowing kisses at him. When he came over and knelt down, she went over to him, reached out a finger, and stroked his head. This was a softer side of Colo that I was not used to seeing.”

Jerry Sieja of Sterling Heights, Michigan, became familiar with the queen when he started visiting Colo’s daughter Toni and granddaughter Cora on a regular basis at the Detroit Zoo.[5] While Sieja didn’t realize that they were “royalty” a journalist encouraged him to visit Colo at the Columbus Zoo. From that first visit in 2001, Sieja visited Colo as much as he could, despite the four-hour trip. “From her 45th birthday on, I was able to attend almost every birthday party of hers. We became good friends.” Sieja witnessed a tender Colo (and care team) moment when a family with four daughters drive from Houston to visit Colo. One of the daughters was wearing a homemade “I ❤️Colo” shirt. She told Sieja that she had written Colo a letter and that “Colo” wrote back. She was so thrilled that she convinced her parents to make the trip to Columbus in 2015. Her mother warned her that Colo might not be visible because she was elderly and not on exhibit as much—which turned out to be the case during their first visit to the ape house. Sieja told the family to come back for the keeper talk that afternoon. When the keeper heard their story, she got permission to let Colo on exhibit. That’s when that little girl’s dreams came true. Colo gave the girls a good look, and the keepers told the family about her amazing life story and offered them a photo of her. This is just one example of how Colo touched many, and how much the keepers loved her.

Colo meeting fans
Colo visits with her fans from Houston. Photo: Jerry Sieja

Colo defied the odds healthwise a few times in her life: tuberculosis as a youngster; in 1974 she stopped breathing while under anesthesia for a medical exam; in 2000 an inflamed digestive tract kept her in the zoo hospital for ten days. Colo’s 50th birthday was aired on Good Morning America in 2006, and certainly her loved ones never knew which one would be her last.[6] They were blessed with her presence for another decade, with her 60th birthday in December 2016 packing the ape house with fans and Colo enjoying her favorite snacks (apples, clementines, and tomatoes), six cakes (one for each decade!), and her paper chain necklaces strewn everywhere. Betty White and other celebrities sent her birthday wishes. At that time, she was the oldest gorilla in captivity. She continued to break records.

Colo's 60th birthday party
Colo celebrates her 60th birthday. Photo: New York Times

Colo passed away peacefully in her sleep on January 17, 2017, just three weeks after her birthday. Earlier in December she had a cancerous tumor removed from under her arm, but a necropsy indicated a heart attack. She had outlived the average gorilla lifespan by at least two decades. The world mourned the news. “We felt a sense of loss, but it’s also a celebration that she lived such a long life,” said Audra Meinelt, who worked with Colo for nearly two decades. “She is, was, truly one of those awesome creatures that’s touched planet Earth,” Charlene Jendry said. Jack Hanna reminisced that she “was an incredible animal. But in my life, Colo is always going to be alive.” The CEO and president of the Columbus Zoo, Tom Stalf, emphasized her importance to the zoo and her species: “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.” Zoo visitors expressed condolences on a large banner and left items in her honor. Colo was cremated and her ashes spread near the gorilla habitat. A beautiful statue of her sits at the entrance to the ape house—and is often adorned with hats and paper chains.

Colo memorial
Makeshift Colo memorial at the Columbus Zoo. Photo: Columbus Dispatch
Colo statue
Colo statue outside the Ape House at the Columbus Zoo.

At the time of her death, Colo was a mother of three, grandmother of sixteen, great-grandmother of twelve, and great-great grandmother of three. Her descendants now live all over the country, many of whom have inherited her signature protruding eyebrows. The ape house isn’t the same without her, but her spirit lives on in Columbus, where twenty gorillas thrive. Twin grandson Macombo (“Mac”) leads a family group of eleven gorillas, which includes his three-year-old son, J. J.[7] In that same group, Colo’s daughter Toni (now 48 years old) carries on her mother’s legacy as their super-surrogate. Most recently, she adopted an infant, Zahra, from Milwaukee County Zoo, who had tragically lost both of her parents to an E. coli infection. Zahra, when not playing with the other youngsters in the group, can be seen riding on Toni’s back or eating next to her.

Toni with Zahra
Colo’s daughter Toni with her adopted daughter Zahra.
Current Columbus Zoo gorillas
Gorillas at the Columbus Zoo. The arrival of Jamani in April 2020 is their twentieth gorilla.
Colo's family tree
Colo’s family tree that hangs in the Ape House. A few of my additions are in yellow.

Even after her death Colo continues to help her species. Samples of her heart tissue were sent to the Great Ape Heart Project, a nonprofit research group started in 2010 and based at Zoo Atlanta. A number of captive gorillas are afflicted with heart disease, and the Great Ape Heart Project is working to reduce this problem and to improve their overall health and welfare. Additionally, for years the Columbus Zoo has been heavily involved in a number of organizations to bring awareness to the plight of gorillas: the Mbeli Bai Gorilla Project, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and Gorilla Doctors. Partners in Conservation was established in 1991 by former gorilla keeper Charlene Jendry, who through her leadership over the years helped raise more than $6 million to create jobs in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that work to save animals and their natural habitats.

When baby Jamani is able to go on exhibit for the first time, the world will get a look at 12th great-granddaughter of the queen, and celebrate the continued legacy that Colo built in Columbus.

[1] Goma died at the age of 58 in 2018.

[2] Warren Thomas eventually served as director of a handful of zoos, including the Los Angeles Zoo for sixteen years (1974–1990).

[3] Toni and Oscar’s third child, Zura, lives at the San Francisco Zoo. A result of inbreeding, she was born with a heart defect. She recovered as an infant and has lived a healthy life.

[4] Jontu currently lives at the Saint Louis Zoo.

[5] Toni returned to the Columbus Zoo in 2008 and has been there ever since. Sadly, Cora died in 2003 of a bacterial infection that caused a stroke at the Detroit Zoo.

[6] See the wonderful video created for Colo’s 57th birthday at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-j7Gz4apDk

[7] The other twin, Mosuba, currently lives at the North Carolina Zoo. His only offspring, Timu, born in 1995 at the Cincinnati Zoo, is the first and only gorilla born through artificial insemination in the United States.


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———. “Jungle-Like Home Drawn for Zoo’s Gorilla Family.” Columbus Dispatch (February 4, 1976): 1. 

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———. “COLUMBUS ZOO – Necropsy shows Colo died of heart attack.” Columbus Dispatch (March 16, 2017): 6B.

———. “GORILLA DEATH / MEDICAL RESEARCH – Colo’s impact still being felt today.” Columbus Dispatch (March 19, 2017): 1B.

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———. “Gorilla Patriarch Is Buried.” Columbus Dispatch (June 22, 1984): D1. 

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  1. This is so well reported and written. Thank you for sharing this important history of one of the founders of captive gorillas and the dedication of the people who cared for her.

  2. I had the privilege of being one of Colo’s caregivers and trainer as a Zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo. She will remain in my heart forever. Thank you for the article.

  3. When we locked eyes behind the scenes and she begged for my hat. I knew she remembered me as a decent. At this time I was a primate keeper for Houston and we had a conference at my hometown zoo in Columbus and I had not seen Colo since I moved to Tx. Glad she didn’t forget me. Love that ol gal.

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