Remembering Colo


Life Moments column

By Christine Bryant

I’ve known Colo as long as I can remember.

Each time I visited the Columbus Zoo – throughout my childhood and as an adult – I visited Colo and the other gorillas, always captivated by her long stares, calm demeanor and what I can only imagine were her thoughts as thousands of people watched her, only separated by a piece of glass.

The idea of a zoo is controversial among some who believe animals should not live anywhere but their natural habitats or similar surroundings. Others argue zoos play a crucial role in the conservation of animals – several of which are endangered or in danger of becoming endangered.

I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I love many areas of our zoo that have evolved to include wide-open spaces where the animals have more room to roam, such as the Heart of Africa exhibit. I wish all the areas were similar.

Without the zoo, though, I wouldn’t have developed the connection I felt to Colo – a connection many others have felt in the community. That was evident in January when a few days after her death, my husband, kids and I took a trip to the zoo and immediately witnessed the outpouring of love for Colo and her legacy.

Just outside the zoo’s entrance hung a large banner that hundreds had signed, expressing their condolences over the zoo’s – and the community’s – loss. Underneath were pictures, flowers and stuffed animals.

Inside, near the gorilla exhibit, flowers and a stuffed animal had been placed under a statue of Colo, and inside the exhibit, more flowers decorated the window sill outside what used to be her area. A chalk circle drawn by a zoo employee marked Colo’s favorite place to sit, an act of grief over her death I can only imagine has been felt throughout the zoo.

Also lining the window sill were a dozen or so photos of Colo. At first, I thought the zookeepers had placed them there for the public to see, but as I was leaving the exhibit, I heard a man say he had placed them there for visitors to take with them. He had been photographing Colo for 16 years, and as he stood there with a camera in hand photographing the other gorillas, I imagined his grief.

Colo continued to make history in December when she turned 60 years old. She was the oldest gorilla on record and exceeded her normal life expectancy by more than two decades before passing away in her sleep just a few weeks later.

Colo wasn’t even supposed to have been conceived. In the mid-1950s, zoo officials didn’t believe gorillas could be born and raised in captivity. She defied the odds, and went on to become a mother of three, grandmother of 16, great-grandmother of 12 and great-great-grandmother of three.

With her loss, there are now 16 endangered lowland gorillas at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, including Colo’s daughter, Toni; grandson, Mac; granddaughter, Cassie; great-granddaughter, Dotty; and great-grandson, JJ.

In western and central Africa, there are an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 western lowland gorillas, fewer than 4,000 eastern lowland gorillas, about 880 mountain gorillas, and fewer than 300 cross river gorillas. All four types are endangered due to a loss of habitat, poaching and susceptibility to diseases.

The loss of Colo is much more than the loss of a single gorilla. Her loss has reverberated throughout the conservation community and is devastating to those who know the impact she made on every young and old face who walked through the Congo Expedition, including mine.

Colo’s legacy will live on. As the zoo says, she put a face to a species whose survival rests primarily on the shoulders of humans – on our generation, my children’s generation and future generations.

As we entered the zoo, after seeing the memorial designated for Colo just out front, my 5-year-old daughter said to the employee checking our membership card, “I’m sad about the gorilla dying.”

The woman, whose eyes appeared saddened, said, “We are, too, honey. We are, too.”
Rest in peace, Colo.

Christine Bryant is a Messenger staff writer and columnist.


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