It’s not often that you get birthday videos sent to you from Wayne Newton, Jack Nicholas, and Betty White, but then Colo the Gorilla is not your normal birthday girl. No, her life has been one of defying expectations. She was the first gorilla to ever be successfully born in captivity, was the first gorilla to ever act as a surrogate mother, and on December 22 became the first known gorilla to ever turn 60 years old.
But her biggest accomplishment has been acting as one of the faces of environmental conservation. “Throughout her life, Colo has acted as a conduit between man and the wild,” says Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the lifetime home of Colo. “Her celebrity has attracted millions to the zoo since she first entered the world on December 22, 1956, and allowed them to experience the beauty of these animals firsthand.”
One of the arguments made against zoos is that they are inhumane, that pulling creatures from their wild habitats is cruel and should be abandoned. PETA has lead a campaign against zoos and aquariums for decades.
“That could not be further from the truth,” says Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo. “Zoos and aquariums provide a vital link between the public and wildlife. Instead of reading about animals, or seeing them on television, we allow generations of people the chance to bond with creatures.” Proponents of zoos argue that they are one of the leading voices in conservation. By exposing a wide swath of the public to the beauty of their animals, zoos have helped empower generations of people to become actively involved in efforts to safeguard creatures in the wild, and to protect the places they live.
They might be right. In 2015 the Association of Zoos & Aquariums — the main accreditation organization in North America — gave $187 million of privately raised funds to conservation groups worldwide. “I would argue that without the work that the zoological world has done over the last century, many more animals would be extinct,” Hanna says. “Long before it was fashionable to know about gorillas in the wild struggling to survive, we were getting the word out.”
The Columbus Zoo sponsors 70 different projects in 30 countries aimed at helping improve the existence of wild animals. They could be as simple as helping people learn a new trade so that they are not clear-cutting forests, one of the biggest threats to gorillas and other species, or rehabilitating poachers to become animal trackers and guardians.
“Most of the successful conservation efforts in the Congo, Rwanda, and anywhere in East Africa are mostly based on funding raised by zoos,” says Stalf. “I fear the day that people stop coming to zoos. I think they will stop caring as much about the animals. If zoos are not there inspiring people to care, by the time they realize that they should, the damage could be insurmountable.”
One success story has been the plight of the mountain gorilla, the ones that Dian Fossey spent almost two decades documenting before her murder at her cabin high in the Rwandan Mountains. By 1981 their numbers had dropped as low as 254 left in the wild — none are in captivity. Sustained conservation efforts have led to their numbers climbing to 880, with a population that is slowly growing. But, they, like all gorillas, are listed as critically endangered. Only continued focus and programs will ensure that they do not disappear from the planet.
So while Colo enters her sixth decade on the planet, introducing yet another generation to the beauty of experiencing a great ape up close, she's also helping the estimated 200,000 other members of her genus still in the wild.