Thursday, March 1, 2012

Colo: Part Two

Earle Davis, the Columbus Zoo director in 1956, went to the Columbus City Council and asked for $11,000 in emergency funds to build Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity, a state-of-the art nursery suitable for viewing her by the public. He got it.

More than a million people visited the zoo in 1957. Colo was a well-behaved infant who quickly became spoiled by all her nursemaids. She was actually dressed and wore diapers. Many, if not most, gorilla babies were taken from their mothers in those days.

Scientists from the Ohio State University’s college of Medicine did a controversial study on Colo. Colo has been involved in publicity stunts to pick winners of sporting events, by choosing blocks with pictures on them. Baron Mocambo and Millie were expected to have more offspring, but they did not.

When Colo was two, she was introduced to Bongo, a nineteen-month-old male from Africa. On February 1, 1968, Colo gave birth to Emmy, named after M.E. “Jack” Sensenbrenner, the mayor of Columbus. Colo and Bongo had two more babies, named Oscar and Toni, the trend being the baby names described awards.

For twenty-five years Colo and Bongo were together and were on constant display. They grew bored with each other. Bongo was mated with other females. Mating gorillas, in cooperation with many other zoos, has given Colo sixteen grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren. In all, twenty-seven gorillas have been born at the Columbus Zoo. Colo did not raise her own offspring but did raise her twin grandsons (another Columbus first: twins) and was surrogate mother to another nursery-raised gorilla.

After years of “gorilla science” of sparse cages, no bedding, no stimulation, no mother-raised gorillas, the feeling in the Ape House was always tense. Dian Fossey came to the Columbus Zoo in 1983, and demonstrated her gorilla vocalizations to the staff. She suggested hay for bedding, long grass in the yard, cut-up food for foraging, a diverse vegetarian diet with protein supplements, mother-and-child rearing, group living, and stimulating environments with multi-levels and ropes for climbing. Watermelon became a favorite food of the gorillas and Bongo loved to eat pesticide-and-thorn-free roses grown for him by a zoo docent.

Some babies still had to be nursery-raised, as their mothers rejected them or could not adequately breast-feed them. The gorillas were also susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis, viruses, and bacterial infections. Many Columbus doctors and veterinarians got involved with the gorillas. On many occasions the gorillas were taken to regular hospitals to have access to advanced equipment.

Jack Hanna’s directorship of the Columbus Zoo lent a positive attitude toward keeper-led decisions, and his visit to Howlett’s Zoo in England, run by John Aspinall who took chances in the animals’ favor, also led Hanna’s thinking toward age-diversified groups of gorillas.

Columbus can be proud of its gorilla facilities and of its on-site training for other zoos. After reading Jeff Lyttle’s Gorillas in Our Midst: the Story of the Columbus Zoo Gorillas, it made me think of family groups in general, how more individuals and age-groups can color everyone’s life-experience (for the better, one hopes.)

Colo is still the prima donna of the Columbus gorillas, she poses for her photos and still displays the “spunk” she had as a baby.

Christine Hayes

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