Colo didn’t just make history at the Columbus Zoo—she made life better for gorillas all over the world.
The animal care team at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium can feel the loss of Colo every morning they walk into the Zoo’s Congo region, where they are no longer greeted by the world-famous gorilla. Researchers have identified approximately 25 different gorilla vocalizations and their meanings, and Colo’s closest keepers came to learn those specific to Colo. A pursed-lipped “raspberry” was a solicitation, and a gruff cough was used to scold. A low, contented huff came to mean “good morning.”
To not hear that is to experience an emptiness that goes deeper than simply seeing Colo’s empty room.
It’s a loss that rippled far beyond Columbus.
Her birth historic and her life extraordinary, Colo wasn’t just the first gorilla born in human care—she was celebrated as the oldest gorilla on record, surpassing her life expectancy by more than two decades. She is credited with helping the Columbus Zoo and other zoological facilities develop species-saving gorilla surrogacy programs, as well as conservation programs serving gorillas in their native habitats. She directly contributed to sustaining gorilla populations at zoos through her own family tree, which included three children, 16 grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren. She even created canvas paintings that would auction for thousands of dollars apiece, financially contributing to animal enrichment and conservation fundraising efforts.
Colo’s fame gave the Columbus Zoo recognition and credibility that could be turned into real change for the gorilla species; one of her former keepers, Charlene Jendry, was able to use this recognition to establish Partners In Conservation (PIC), a now 25-year-old humanitarian organization that protects gorillas by providing local people with economic alternatives to poaching and other threats to wildlife.
But more than her status as the first, the oldest, or one of the most famous gorillas, Colo was a truly unique and special individual. She was beloved.
On Jan. 18, 2017, the day after her death was announced, a woman walked to the Zoo’s entrance with flowers in her arms and tears in her eyes. She said she was the same age as Colo and had followed this gorilla’s life while she grew into her own. She was the first of hundreds who came to pay their respects to the animal who, in ways small and significant, changed their lives. For some, Colo was their introduction to gorillas and to the human-made threats this critically endangered species faces.
At the Columbus Zoo, and within the zoo community at-large, Colo changed the way that zoological professionals cared for these animal ambassadors. Her very existence was the result of innovative thinkers in the field. A veterinary student, Warren Thomas, had directly disobeyed the Columbus Zoo director at the time when he put two “excited” adult gorillas in the same habitat. While the director feared the gorillas would harm each other, Thomas had a different hunch. Nearly nine months later, Dec. 22, 1956, Colo was born.
The animal care team’s creative thinking continued to guide Colo’s care for the next 60 years—from a bartering system to facilitate communication (to receive a bit of hay from Colo was considered a high honor among her care providers), to redesigning her habitat to accommodate the arthritis she developed later in life.
On Dec. 22, 2016, Colo celebrated “The Big 6-0” with hundreds of her fans. Her caregivers said that she seemed to know that this was her special day.
The grand matriarch entered her habitat greeted by a wall of news crews, visitors, and current and former employees. The guests watched her taste bits of the six cakes—representing her six “decadent” decades—that were painstakingly created by the animal nutritionists, open presents of cherry tomatoes and ball caps (one of her favorite enrichment items), and recline under a rainbow of paper decorations.
She loved a party and would get to enjoy one more before her passing. The Zoo offered free admission on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the unseasonably warm weather brought record crowds that January day. Thousands of people saw Colo on her last day alive. Docent volunteers remarked that she was in her glory, actively engaging with her visitors. While her appetite had been declining, she went to sleep that night with a belly full of her favorite meal: one white potato and one sweet potato, both baked to her liking.
She died in her sleep, and some of her caregivers suspect that wasn’t a coincidence. Colo demonstrated a strong personality throughout her life; she was the one who called the shots. The animal care team who worked with her had to learn her language.
Back in the gorilla building, the emptiness felt by Colo’s departure is partnered with the recognition of Colo’s positive and widespread impact—on her caregivers’ lives, visitors’ impressions, and the welfare of gorillas living in managed care and in their native ranges. Colo created a legacy, one that transcends her death.
She was the “Queen of the Columbus Zoo,” and her reign is certainly one to live on.
Kate Liebers, one of (614) Magazine’s original contributors, is now Communications Coordinator for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. For those who would like to contribute to gorilla conservation in Colo’s honor, please visit ColumbusZoo.org/ColoMemorial.