December 22, 1956 (a Saturday)

Colo the gorilla (24 Aug 2009)

On this date, a gorilla was born in captivity for the first time in history. Born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and named Colo (a combination of Columbus and Ohio), the western lowland gorilla weighed four pounds. She was the daughter of Millie and Mac, two gorillas captured in French Cameroon, Africa, who were brought to the Columbus Zoo in 1951. For decades after people had first tried to keep gorillas in captivity, any gorilla’s path from the forest to the zoo was soaked in blood. The animals had to be captured in the wild when they were young — before they grew too big and powerful to handle. Hunters would first have to kill the baby’s parents and sometimes its entire family.

She almost didn’t make it,” says Jeffrey Lyttle, author of Gorillas In Our Midst, a book about the Columbus Zoo gorillas.

“At the time, the zookeepers knew that Colo’s [mother] was pregnant, but nobody knew the gestation period of a gorilla,” Lyttle recalls. “They thought it was nine months, like humans, but it turns out it is closer to eight and a half months. So they weren’t expecting the birth. A vet named Warren Thomas was making his morning rounds when he discovered Colo, in her amniotic sack, lying on the concrete floor of her mother’s cage. He reached in, tore open the sack, and began giving Colo mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

Luckily, the little gorilla lived. “It was huge national news,” says Lyttle. But zookeepers believed that Colo’s mother wasn’t up to the task of raising her baby. They were probably right, since many captive gorillas never had a chance to learn parenting skills from their own parents in the wild. “So Columbus built a special nursery for her,” Lyttle explains. “Zoo visitation went through the roof. They would dress Colo up for the holidays — put her in an Easter bonnet and fancy dresses. Some people say she still likes to wear her food dish as a hat because she spent so much of her infancy wearing hats.”

Colo is also the oldest living gorilla in captivity, following the death of 55 year old Jenny in September 2008.

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