The remarkable life of Colo, the gorilla who changed Columbus and the world

From behind the glass, Colo's dark, deep-set eyes seem to pierce through everyone who stops to stare at her. And they are many. She's the star, and a bit of a diva, alone, by choice, in her enclosure—an airy indoor space littered with hay for nesting, popcorn for foraging and tree trunks for climbing.

Next door are her favorite gorillas, Anakka and her family group, close enough to entertain the Grand Old Matriarch of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium with their coughs and hoots and grumbles, but thankfully separate from their play wrestling and clinging fingers and sudden movements.

On this day—Dec. 22, 2016—Colo is celebrating her 60th birthday, with six special cakes honoring her six decades of life, colorful paper chains stretched across her habitat and wrapped packages ready to be torn apart on the concrete floor. The great ape house is standing room only, jammed with admirers who want to see the world's first captive-born gorilla, and now the oldest one alive. Some are daily worshippers, some are seeing her for the first time, and some have been visiting her since she was a youngster, when they, too, were children.

In recent years the zoo has honored her birth with a splashy party appropriate for the queen of the apes, while perhaps wondering privately if it might be her last. This time, it was.

Fewer than four weeks later, Colo died in her sleep. A zookeeper found her body on Jan. 17 during morning checks. She called assistant curator Audra Meinelt, who in turn called the zoo veterinarians. “It was pretty clear that she was gone,” says Meinelt, who had cared for Colo for 19 years—nearly her entire zoo-keeping career.

Colo's death ended a life that had more impact on the Columbus Zoo than perhaps any but its inimitable director emeritus Jack Hanna, whose personality and fame have helped propel the once-humble home for wild animals into one of the best-known zoos in the world. But long before Hanna walked through the zoo gates in 1978, Colo brought the world's admiration to Columbus by her very existence.

When she was born in 1956, few zoos housed gorillas. Gorilla hunter and Bexley native Bill Said had plucked her parents, western lowland gorillas Baron Macombo and Millie Christina, from the wilds of Africa as youngsters. Said sold Mac, Millie and a third gorilla, Christopher, to the Columbus Zoo in December 1950, and soon the 23-year-old zoo was jammed with visitors eager to see live gorillas for the first time.

Columbus had three of only about 60 gorillas anywhere in U.S. zoos then, all captured from the wild. Within a few years Christopher was traded to a zoo in Switzerland, and Mac and Millie were kept in separate cages because zoo superintendent Earl Davis feared Mac might unwittingly hurt Millie.

“Mac was a big guy and those were small spaces we had them in,” remembers Louis DiSabato, the zoo's mammal curator at the time. “Mac ran around that cage and was a tough guy, and we feared the female might become the brunt of his anxiety.”

But the late Warren Dean Thomas, a second-year veterinary student working with the gorillas in 1956, thought differently. According to the book “Gorillas in Our Midst,” he'd seen what he thought were mating rituals between the pair, whose cages were next to each other. So when Davis wasn't around, Thomas put Mac, 11, and Millie, 8, together for a few hours, then separated them before the zoo director came to work.

Although gorilla births are fairly common at zoos today, none had occurred among captive gorillas by 1956. Despite breeding efforts at some zoos, no captive gorilla had even gotten pregnant. So when Thomas eventually told Davis he thought Millie was pregnant, Davis was ecstatic. The two decided, based on human births, that the baby would arrive in early January.

But another surprise was in store. On the morning of Dec. 22, 1956, Thomas noticed that Millie seemed oddly quiet and almost dazed when he checked on her, according to the book “Colo's Story: The Life of One Grand Gorilla.” He looked closer and saw, on the concrete floor near her, a baby gorilla in an amniotic sac. “Thomas knew what he was seeing, so he called for [zookeeper] Terry Strawser,” DiSabato says. “The baby was totally covered by the membrane, and her umbilical cord was still on.”

Thomas peeled back the amniotic sac and exhaled into the baby's mouth until she was breathing on her own, then Strawser clamped and cut the cord. By the time DiSabato arrived a few minutes later, the female infant was wrapped in rags in the building's kitchen. “She was only just over 3 pounds, and she was a mess,” DiSabato says. “We took her respiration, weight and temperature, and we put her in the warmest spot in the ape house, in a cardboard box.”

Little was known about baby gorillas, and the keepers had no idea if the 280-pound Millie could care for her offspring, so they decided to raise the baby without Millie's help. “None of us knew if a gorilla would even recognize that as a baby,” DiSabato says. “We had the opportunity to raise the first baby in captivity and we didn't want to lose that.”

By the next day, news of the first gorilla birth in captivity had spread. Zookeepers, researchers and reporters jammed the zoo's phone lines. Stories about the baby—and the Columbus Zoo—soon appeared in Time and Life magazines and in newspapers across the United States. The Today show's Dave Garroway came calling, and DiSabato held Colo and fed her a bottle on national television.

The Columbus Sunday Dispatch declared the 13-inch-long infant “the most newsworthy newcomer in the world Saturday” and said European zoo experts were “agog over the event.” The Columbus Citizen ran front page stories about the birth four days in a row with headlines such as, “It's a coo at the zoo for the baby gorilla,” and, “This gorilla baby—she's almost human.”

DiSabato and his wife, Phyllis, parents of a 10-month-old baby themselves, brought in infant formula and sterilized bottles and helped watch over the now-famous gorilla with other volunteers 24 hours a day. “We couldn't go look at any literature and say, ?What do you do when a baby gorilla is born?'” DiSabato says. “Everyone just pitched in.”

A local hospital donated an incubator for the furnace-room nursery, and the zoo's maintenance crew was tasked with building a glassed-in nursery so the public could watch human nurses rock the baby gorilla to sleep, change her diapers and dress her in bonnets and gowns. Director Davis' wife, Mildred, was one of the nurses, and it was her idea to dress the gorilla like a little girl, DiSabato says. “I wasn't too thrilled with that, but if that was what the boss' wife wanted, that was fine,” he says. “I have to admit she was cute.”

So cute that her first nicknames were Sweetie Face and Cuddles. The Columbus Citizen held a naming contest, and within weeks the baby was dubbed Colo, for Columbus, Ohio. The $150 prize for the winning name included a $100 “war bond” donated by movie star Clark Gable.

Norma Dodge, whose husband, Mel, worked for the Columbus recreation department, which ran the zoo at the time, remembers that their daughter's doctor became the gorilla's pediatrician. “My children always felt a bond with Colo because of that,” says Norma.

“People stood for hours and hours to see her,” she says. “It was big, big news. She was our calling card for the zoo.”

The year after her birth, attendance jumped to more than 1 million people, a record that held for more than 30 years, until giant pandas from China visited in 1992. While the huge crowds helped the zoo's bottom line, the unexpected birth also was the beginning of a love affair between the people of Columbus and a gorilla they could legitimately call their own.

“She became a part of the tradition of visiting the zoo,” says Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the zoo. “People who grew up in the Columbus area always come to me and say that they remembered coming to the zoo as kids to see Colo. Then they brought their kids and then their grandchildren.”

Eventually, Colo outgrew the nursery. Mildred Davis, the zoo director's wife, explained it to the Dispatch this way in 1966: “The coddling of Colo ended the night she spread apart the bars at the back of her nursery and toddled down the hall to the kitchen. She threw her hairy arms around the cute little blonde nurse who was giving a bottle to a baby bear and frightened her half to death. It took over an hour to get Colo back where she belonged. After that, she was caged like the rest of the apes.”

Respect for the zoo, both among Central Ohio residents and the zoological community worldwide, rocketed when Colo survived, giving the zoo a platform for its next act: a gorilla breeding program with Colo at its epicenter.

Toward that end, a young wild-born male, Bongo, was brought to the zoo in 1958. The pair grew up together, and 10 years later had their first offspring, Emmy. Oscar followed in 1969 and Toni was born in 1971. All three were raised in the zoo nursery.

Today, captive gorillas are kept in family groups, and mothers are encouraged to raise their young. But in the 1960s and 1970s, zookeepers feared that adult gorillas might harm youngsters, and newborns were taken away from their mothers. Young gorillas were kept together, but none remained in family groups, where they could learn skills like mothering from their elders.

Despite the zoo's growing breeding program, accommodations for the gorillas were sparse. They lived indoors 24 hours a day in large cages with concrete floors and with nothing to occupy their time.

Fortunately for the gorillas, times were changing. After Hanna was hired as zoo director in 1978, he renovated an old elephant house on the grounds so the gorillas had both indoor and outdoor spaces. For some of the gorillas, it was the first time they'd been outdoors. That change, too, is part of Colo's legacy, says former Columbus zookeeper Charlene Jendry. “Her birth led directly to the zoo wanting to not only elevate the lives of the animals under its care, but also to do something to help the gorillas living in the wild,” she says. “It's all connected.”

Jendry cared for the gorillas in the 1980s, when zoos nationwide began transforming animal homes into habitats that simulated their environment in the wild. She remembers how a visit from gorilla expert Dian Fossey helped that process along in Columbus.

Fossey, who lived among the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, was on a promotional tour for her book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” and Hanna convinced her to give a speech at the Columbus Zoo. “We knew she didn't have a high opinion of gorillas in zoos,” Jendry says. “She asked to see our gorillas by herself, and we all peeked around and watched as she walked down the aisle where they were, making vocalizations that we'd heard the gorillas make.”

Fossey spent four days with the zoo's gorillas and their keepers, sharing 17 years of knowledge about how gorillas lived in the wild. “She told us how gorillas like a nest to sleep in at night, so we got hay and put it in the habitat,” Jendry says. “The gorillas that had been born in the wild immediately began to build nests. Colo didn't have that memory, so she sat on the concrete and made a circle around herself with the hay.”

Fossey also told the keepers how gorillas in the wild stripped bark from the vegetation they ate, so vegetation with bark became part of the gorilla diet at the zoo. “Up until that time the gorillas had gingivitis with their gums, but when we started doing that it stopped,” Jendry says. “It was amazing.”

After Fossey's visit, the zoo built a mesh-covered round structure known as the Gorilla Villa—a spacious outdoor area with climbing ropes and a grassy floor. More than a decade later, a new indoor gorilla building was added, with a glassed-in area where visitors could watch family groups of gorillas climb, care for their young and scramble overhead.

By then, Jendry had observed gorillas in the wild and translated that knowledge into better care for the zoo's gorillas. The trips also convinced her of the need to help the dwindling number of wild gorillas, so she and three zoo volunteers approached Hanna in 1991 about creating Partners in Conservation, a Columbus Zoo-funded charity that helps reduce deforestation and illegal hunting of great apes. “It came directly out of my relationship with the [zoo] gorillas,” Jendry said. “It's this continuous circle that one thing naturally led to the next.”

Jendry directed the group until her retirement earlier this year, helping raise more than $6 million to create jobs in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that save animals and habitat rather than destroy them. It's one of many charities the zoo supports to help animals in the wild, as well as those at home, marking another fundamental shift for zoos. “Back in 1956, zoos were more of a menagerie of animals,” director Stalf says. “Now we're a place that's inspiring people to talk about habitats and coexistence between humans and wildlife.”

Perhaps no animal at the zoo has provided more inspiration for that effort than Colo. “We're talking about a single gorilla, but she represented so much more,” Stalf says. “Not only did we get notoriety because she was the first born in human care and was the oldest gorilla alive, but she was a mother, a grandmother, a great- and a great-great-grandmother.” (Besides her three children, Colo had 16 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.)

“It's very different to see a gorilla in person, smell them and hear those vocalizations,” zookeeper Meinelt says. “People are more connected to things they get to see in person, and Colo inspired multiple generations of people to care deeply about gorillas and about protecting them in the wild.”

Colo's daughter, Toni, is her last surviving child; she lives at the zoo with five other Colo descendants and 10 other gorillas. Thirteen of Colo's descendants live at other zoos, and she outlived 15 other progeny.

Meinelt, who began working with Colo in 1997, says the zoo's matriarch was self-assured and confident. “She knew how to express what she wanted to the people who took care of her, letting them know, ‘This is how the day is going to go,'” she says.

One way Colo communicated was by spitting, to let you know she didn't like what you were doing, Meinelt says. She wasn't above bartering to get what she wanted, either, as evidenced by an exchange with Jendry after Colo found a set of plastic baby keys in her outdoor enclosure.

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon with about 500 people milling around when a zoo volunteer told Jendry that Colo had something in her hand. “I grabbed some peanuts and I extended my hand near her,” Jendry remembers. “Her expression was: ‘What you have is not good enough.' So I cut up some pieces of pineapple, which they weren't getting every day, and then her face lit up.”

Colo had put the plastic keys under her foot by then, and she broke one off and handed it to Jendry in exchange for a piece of pineapple. “She traded one key at a time for the pineapple, until finally she gave me the keychain itself,” Jendry says. “Then she walked away and those 500 people were cheering her.”

Although her own children were raised by humans, Colo became a surrogate mother in 1987 when her daughter, Toni, couldn't care for her son, JJ. Colo was 31 years old then, considered a senior citizen in gorilla years. “She was a great mother,” says Meinelt, who watched Colo mother other baby gorillas afterward. “Her maternal skills were amazing.”

Colo's overall health was excellent for her age. Dr. Randy Junge, zoo vice president for animal health, says a physical examination in November showed some loss of kidney function. In December, a cancerous mass was successfully removed from under her arm. But that doesn't appear to have hastened her death.

“We had no indication that she was in declining health,” Junge says. “She was quite bright and alert and didn't act like she had any visual deficiencies at all.”

A necropsy showed Colo had kidney disease and some signs of heart disease, which Junge says is the presumptive cause of death. A final cause will be determined after additional pathology testing.

“Her longevity tells us that, with good preventative health, gorillas can live long lives,” he says. “Her legacy is her offspring.”

Her death wasn't a surprise—the median lifespan of a gorilla is just over 30 years—but it was a shock when it happened, he says. And like her birth, it was worldwide news. Thousands of people shared stories of Colo on the zoo's Facebook page, the Washington Post wrote a lengthy piece about her life, and media worldwide carried the news. Sympathy cards and emails poured into the zoo, and keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo had pizza delivered to the grieving Columbus Zoo staff. “Her passing has touched a lot of different people,” Meinert says. “We felt a sense of loss, but it's also a celebration that she lived such a long life.”

Colo's body was cremated, and Stalf plans to place her ashes into the foundation of a new gorilla habitat, in the planning stages. She lived life to the fullest until the end, Stalf says. “Our saddest day at the zoo is when we lose an animal, because this isn't a pet; this is a family member,” he says. “But she enjoyed her birthday and, the day before she passed, she enjoyed her day. She was wearing hats and she was having a ball.”

When Hanna got the call about Colo's death, his mind flooded with memories. “What we learned from Colo, that's something you can't buy,” Hanna says. “Do I miss her? Of course I do. Colo was an incredible animal. But in my life, Colo is always going to be alive.”

Colo's Great escape

By Tom Dodge as told to Kathy Lynn Gray

Columbus Dispatch photographer Tom Dodge loved to hang around the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium on his days off. It seemed like home to Dodge, whose father Mel was director of Columbus Recreation and Parks when the department managed the zoo. The Dodge family raised several zoo babies while Tom was growing up, including seven lions, two cheetahs and an Amur tiger, so Tom had plenty of friends at the zoo. He says he was essentially part of the zoo's family, which explains how he could get such access. Here's his firsthand account of the day in 1984 when Colo got loose in the back of the great ape house, and he became part of the action.

I had a programmable Bearcat scanner that I used for work and I'd gotten ahold of the zoo's frequency. That's what all the keepers broadcast on. It was 1984 and I was up there on my day off, and I was listening to the keepers talk on my scanner. I hear one say: “Got one loose in the ape house,” so, of course, I start walking that way.

Officer [David] Bricker is standing outside the ape house with what I think might be a shotgun, and vans are backing up to the doors of the ape house. I ask Officer Bricker, “What's going on?” He says, “Oh, nothing.” Then I say, “I heard you had one loose at the ape house.” Then he kind of leans in and says, “Where'd you hear that?” And I say, “On the radio.”

“On the public radio?” he asks.

“No, no, not yet,” I say. “Can I go in?”

He didn't say yes and he didn't say no, but I think his eyes kind of looked to the area where it looked like you could go in, so I start walking that way.

Inside, I see a couple of keepers in one of the gorilla cages, and there are no gorillas in sight. So pretty soon I'm in the cage with the keepers. The keepers and I climb up on a ledge so we can climb into the catwalk that's overhead and connected to the cages. There are two other keepers in front of me and we're crawling through the catwalk.

All of a sudden we see Bongo [Colo's male gorilla mate] at the other end of the catwalk. And he just looks at us.

The two people in front of me start backing up and I'm backing up and we hear a scream. We weren't sure if it was human or not. We all come shooting backward out of the catwalk back into the cage. And then suddenly Don Winstel [another zookeeper] comes shooting out of the catwalk too, looking really pale. And he doesn't have a shirt on.

I say, “Where's your shirt, Don?” And he says, “Bongo's got it.”

It turns out that on the other side of the catwalk, Colo is holding back some kind of lever that opens the doors of the cages. Don had already gone through the catwalk, trying to figure out where Colo is, when Bongo grabbed his shirt and Don, well, he let Bongo have it.

[For the record, Winstel says he doesn't remember losing his shirt to Bongo.]

We wait a few minutes and Bongo doesn't appear in the catwalk, but we don't know where he is. So the keepers climb back into the catwalk, and I'm behind them.

When they get to the end, there's Colo sitting on a 55-gallon drum of monkey biscuits, eating, and she has a padlock in one hand. Then someone—I think it was a veterinarian—arrives with a dart gun or a dart stick to tranquilize her. As soon as Colo sees the dart, she walks into her cage and sits down with her back to the door because she doesn't want to get darted. The keepers shut the door and it's over.

How had Colo gotten loose? Neither Dodge nor Winstel remember, but Winstel said she probably got out when she was being transferred to another enclosure and a door wasn't completely shut.