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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Past Their Prime


Past Their Prime is a half-hour documentary about Colo— the oldest living gorilla in captivity — on her 55th birthday, and her place in the world of geriatric zoo animal care.



           It’s winter at the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio. In the ape house elderly visitors browse slowly, wrapped in down jackets. Children run from exhibit to exhibit, pointing at the animals they see and announcing each one to their grandparents.

Behind the glass, Colo, the stately matriarch of the groups peers back at the visitors from her solo room. She perks up when a camera flashes into view. But the camera’s gaze turns from Colo onto the adjacent room where 1-year old gorilla Nadami pesters her mother. And Colo returns to carefully picking at remnants of breakfast that remain on her enclosure floor.

           The Columbus Zoo staff welcomed Colo on December 22, 1956. She was a household name, appearing in local papers as well as national publications that all announced the first gorilla born into captivity. From her first birthday through her 54th, visitors flocked to the zoo to celebrate another year of her life. Now, since reclaiming the title of “oldest living gorilla in captivity,” Colo’s staff look forward to celebrating another precious year of her life complete with presents, decorations, and a gorilla-friendly birthday cake.

Geriatric gorillas, like Colo, often experience arthritis. Colo labors about her room on her wrists instead of her now-curled knuckles. Aging captive gorillas may also experience cardiac disease, dental decay, urinary tract infections, and constipation. For that, they’re fed prunes.

As advances in medical care help the animals live longer lives, animal healthcare staffers look for creative and often familiar methods of care. On top of the veterinary care they already employ, the Columbus Zoo staff works with human doctors from the neighboring hospitals and researchers from Ohio State University to help inform their decisions. And not just for their gorillas.

           Kulinda has a bit of a plaque problem. But Kulinda can’t go to just any dentist, she’d break the dentist’s chair. Aging rhinos in captivity, like Kulinda, have begun demonstrating dental issues that hadn’t previously appeared in the skulls of rhinos that lived in the wild. Harry Peachey, manager of the Pachyderm House at the zoo, says they believe the issues are due to a lack of coarse browse the animals would feed on in the wild. Finding enough browse to match what a rhino’s consumption is impractical in the Midwest. To combat the plaque, they brush their rhinos’ teeth.

           The care of geriatrics extends throughout the park across species and regions of origin at the zoo. Dusty Lombardi, Vice President of Animal Care, remarks that their efforts have been fueled largely in part because of the care celebrity Colo receives, and the benefits they’ve seen as a result. “When you see the benefits for Colo,” she says, “you do it for the other animals.” And in the end Colo celebrates her birthday with all the pomp and circumstance befitting of a grand dame.

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