Queen of the Zoo

I wrote this story in December 2006 for the Columbus Dispatch as Colo, the world’s first captive-born gorilla, was about to turn 50 years old. Even then, she was the oldest-known gorilla in the world. Hard to believe she has just turned 60 years old.

One of the things I loved most about doing this story was watching Tom Dodge make the amazing portrait of Colo that ran as dominant art on Page 1.

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By Matt Tullis
Columbus Dispatch

images-coloIt’s early in the morning and Colo sits in her normal spot, the center of Cage 1. She is wedged between two concrete trees. A milk crate is on her right, and a rope dangles in front of her.

Her head is tilted back, her chin juts into the air, her eyes are half-closed and looking down.

A chute opens at the top of her exhibit area, and the world’s first captive-born gorilla stirs from her reverie at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. She grabs the rope with her curled, arthritic fingers and pulls herself up. She slowly makes her way up the tree, climbing toward breakfast: a banana, grapefruit, apple, sweet potato, cucumber and turnip, as well as iceberg lettuce, carrots and broccoli.

She would have taken these fake trees in bounds when she was younger, but they are steep and slippery and youth is fleeting, even for gorillas.

The world outside the glass

On Friday, Colo turns 50, the equivalent of 100 human years. No one knows how long she will live, though, because Colo is the mold from which captive-born gorillas are made.

Docents Sara Jane Rowland and Sharon Kruyer walk into the public viewing aisle in the gorilla house and look into Cage 1.

“Hi, Queen Bee,” Rowland says.

“Good morning, Queen,” Kruyer says.

The two women have just finished chopping vegetables for the gorillas’ two daily meals. Their attention moves from Colo to Cage 2, where Mumbah, a 41-year-old silverback, watches his group play with 2-year-old Dotty, Colo’s great-granddaughter.

Colo watches this, too. Dotty tags Cassie, Colo’s 13-year-old granddaughter, and runs across the hay-covered, concrete floor. Cassie gives chase, grabs Dotty and rolls. Dotty jumps and spins before clapping her hands against the glass. Little boys and girls, at the zoo with their mothers, giggle and point.

It’s enough now for Colo to just watch the ruckus. She doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. She gave birth to three children and, though they were taken from her at birth, she served as a surrogate mother for three of her grandchildren, including the twins, Mosuba and Macombo II (Mac), born in 1983.

Her line, including four great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, is scattered among zoos across the country. It’s strongest here in Columbus, where Mac, Cassie, Jumoke, Nkosi (Nick) and Dotty make up one-third of the zoo’s gorilla collection.

Mac and Nick aren’t on display but, from her spot, Colo can watch her granddaughters and great-granddaughter play all day long.

The world outside the mesh

Debby Ames stands at the mesh, the back part of the gorilla cages, and calls for Colo. The Queen glances over but doesn’t move.

“Colo. Can you come over here for me? I’ve got some sweet potato for you.”

Ames looks away from the cage.

“Now you see the attitude,” she says.

Ames has been training Colo for four years. She works with Colo at the mesh, getting her to place her hands in different spots, pushing her shoulder up to the mesh to receive injections and moving her chest close to accommodate a stethoscope.

Colo doesn’t always cooperate.

“She’s my toughest because she doesn’t think she should have to work for anything,” Ames says.

Each keeper has a relationship with Colo, as well as a favorite story. For Ames, it’s the time Colo took a toothbrush out of her hand and started brushing her own teeth.

Dan Nellis started at the zoo in 1992 and was the first male keeper to work with Colo since 1979. She spit on him for two years, he says.

“Then she figured out I wasn’t going to leave and she started hitting on me,” he said. “They tell you not to get attached, but you can’t help it.”

Mike Zedekar likes the story of Colo and the hat. A few years back, she wore a ball cap. Zedekar always wears a cap at work and, one day, when he was cleaning outside her cage, he turned it backward. Colo did the same. He turned it sideways, and she copied him once more. Now that she doesn’t have a hat of her own, she tries to take his whenever he walks by.

All the keepers tell the one about the toy keys. A few years ago, a child dropped a ring of plastic keys into the outdoor gorilla exhibit. Colo pounced on them. She knew the keepers would barter for them.

Colo held out for cookies, but instead of turning over the entire key ring for one cookie, she broke the keys into tiny pieces and traded each one for a treat. As usual, she got her way.

As Colo’s training winds down, Ames sprinkles her with affirmation: “Good girl” and “very good.” Colo has allowed Ames to brush her teeth. She has done her best to place her ear, shoulder, back and chest against the mesh — all for cranberry juice and slivers of sweet potato.

When the food is gone, she walks slowly back to her spot, lowers herself to the floor and resumes her stately pose.

The world in between

Colo has been at the zoo longer than any other creature. Because of that, she gets her wish: to be left alone. She moves infrequently, to the mesh for food or drink or to the window to get a visitor’s attention. She scratches her armpits and nose. She plays with a milk crate. She swings the rope back and forth.

But most often, she just sits, her head held high, in that one spot where everyone can see her and she can see everyone. It’s the world between the glass and the mesh, a world into which she became the first gorilla ever born. When she was born they called her Cuddles, but only for a short time.

Now there is nothing cuddly about her. She is stubborn, stuck in her ways, a gorilla through and through.

Her distinctive heart-shape brow is a crown, raised high on her head as she watches her people come and go.

She is the Queen.

mtullis@dispatch.com

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