Thursday, March 1, 2012

Colo: The Pride of the Columbus Zoo

Colo, the first gorilla to be born in captivity anywhere in the world, was born right here in the Columbus Zoo. She is also, at age fifty-five, the oldest gorilla anywhere in captivity.

In January 1951, the Columbus Zoo paid $10,000 to purchase three gorillas from a gorilla hunter who had killed many gorillas to get the trio. It is a tragic background story to the Columbus gorilla legend.

Baron Macambo was the name of the largest gorilla, five years old, and the alpha male. Zoo director Earle Davis had to consult the Ohio Penitentiary for advice on bars strong enough to hold him.

Gorilla science was in its infancy in the 1950’s. The gorillas were fed meat; in the wild they are vegetarians. The three gorillas were kept apart in small cages; in the wild they live in family groups.

A naming contest for the two younger ones came up with Christopher (as in Christopher Columbus) and Christina. Later, the female would be called Millie Christina after Earle Davis’s wife, Millie.

Davis soon traded Christopher to a zoo in Basel, Switzerland in exchange for two rhinos and two cheetahs. In 1956 the remaining two Columbus gorillas had a secret: they were allowed overnight conjugal visits by their keeper, a twenty-five- year-old veterinary student named Warren Thomas. (Thomas later became the distinguished director of several zoos.)

Davis had forbidden the gorillas to be together, as he thought the two would be aggressive to each other. Now it is accepted that gorillas are capable of rough play.

Warren Thomas watched the gorillas and he knew when to put them together. He also was the only person who knew Millie was seven and a half months pregnant. It seems that it is difficult to tell when gorillas are pregnant, not the least reason is that it is often dangerous to get near them, and equally dangerous to tranquilize them to examine them. Many gorillas have died from the tranquilizing process.

Thomas finally told Davis about the pregnancy. Davis was elated. But no one knew a gorilla’s gestation period. Millie actually gave birth when no one was watching. Thomas found the amniotic sac on the cage floor, and thought the baby gorilla inside was dead. It was simply luck that he found it after a few minutes of the birth.

Thomas lured the mother away, took the baby to another area, and broke the sac. He sponged the baby, massaged it, and gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The baby finally started to breathe on her own. Others were summoned to look at the scrawny, wrinkled thing with big beautiful eyes. She was born on Dec. 22, 1956.

In the flurry of excitement, J. Wallace Huntington, the newly appointed chairman of the Zoo Commission, got locked into the Great Ape House. While everyone was admiring the newborn, Huntington had gone to check on the mother and accidentally locked himself in. A passerby finally heard his cries for help after an hour and freed him.

Overnight, the Columbus Zoo went from being a typical small zoo to making headlines worldwide. Columbus Mayor Maynard Sensenbrenner started handing out cigars saying, “It’s a Girl.” A Christmas star was erected above the Ape House. The Columbus Citizen ran a “Name the Gorilla Contest.” The newspaper put up $25 as a prize, and actor Clark Gable added a $100 savings bond. Mr.Gable had become enamored of gorillas while working on the film Mogambo.

The name “Colo” was chosen, a combination of Columbus and Ohio. But Colo needed more than name. The gorilla baby spent her first few days in rags in a cardboard box next to a heater. Colo needed a new nursery, and fast.

Next: Part Two of the Colo story: the Generations of Gorillas to Come.

Christine Hayes

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