A tribute to the Columbus Zoo's late gorilla matriarch

I was privileged to see Colo just a couple weeks ago, accompanied by the Columbus Zoo’s assistant curator Audra Meinelt. Audra has spent the last 19 years caring for—and learning from—“the coolest animal I’ve ever worked with,” as she said in the zoo’s Jan. 17 press release confirming Colo’s death.

Colo showed her signature spunk during our visit. She tried to spit on me. Twice.

In the dedication of my book, “Gorillas in Our Midst: The Story of the Columbus Zoo Gorillas,” I called Colo “the ultimate survivor.” She defied death several times during the longest life ever lived by a gorilla.

It was touch-and-go for Colo from her first faint breaths. If not for the quick and decisive action of a 25-year-old Ohio State veterinary student named Warren Thomas, serendipitously making morning rounds just minutes after Colo’s unexpected birth, the world’s first captive-born gorilla might never have been seen by a Columbus Zoo visitor.

As it turns out, thanks to life-saving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Thomas, more than one million Columbus Zoo visitors rushed to see Colo during her first year of life. Zoo attendance in 1957 established a record that lasted for 35 years.

Her other brushes with death included a diagnosis of a human strain of tuberculosis in 1963. The community was told Colo would likely die in a matter of weeks. The Dispatch ran a story with the headline, “Colo Death Predicted in 90 Days.” There was even talk of putting Colo and a handful of similarly diagnosed primates to death, for fear the disease would spread across the entire zoo population.

The first time she was anesthetized for a medical exam the doctors and keepers had no idea how much medication it would take to put Colo in a deep sleep. She stopped breathing after a third dart of meds and had to be revived by the vet.

She survived giving birth three times, including once following a pregnancy that went undetected by her keepers until her third offspring, Toni, was born three days after Christmas in 1971. (She outlived two of her offspring—Emmy and the prolific sire Oscar. Toni is still alive and living at the Columbus Zoo.)

Colo also escaped her cage on multiple occasions, once having to be tranquilized by veterinarian using a blow gun while lying among the gorilla house rafters.

To a person, the people who spent time with Colo over the decades marveled at her intelligence and her seeming command of every situation. My layman’s eyes were frequently transfixed on her busy eyes, often shadowed by her heavy brow. She was a marvelous and unceasingly interesting creature who moved with power and grace. And it was pretty clear she was the one in charge. She seemed to know—and expected others to know—she was special.

No visit to the zoo will ever be the same with Colo gone. I didn’t get to see her during all my visits spread over more than five decades, but I tried. She defied death for long enough. She lived a remarkable life. To quote Tolstoy: “What was necessary had been accomplished and accomplished rightly.” Rest in Peace, Colo.