It was a momentous occasion at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when we celebrated gorilla Vila’s 54th birthday on November 23, 2011. Party guests included gorilla fans of all ages who have generously contributed to the gorillas’ online Animal Care Wish List, providing all kinds of items to pique the gorillas’ interest and stimulate their minds!
The exhibit was decorated with all kinds of fun: large, painted cardboard animals, papier-mache balloons, wrapped packages filled with treats like popcorn, raisins, carrots, bell peppers, apples, magazines with seeds inside, puzzle feeders, plastic balls filled with lettuce and kale, mirrors, paper towel rolls, lots of tasty plants such as ginger, banana leaves, and eugenia. A brightly colored “Happy Birthday” sign and streamers were glued to the wall with peanut butter!
To look at her, you would never guess that Vila is a great-great grandmother, the matriarch of five generations of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Born in 1957, Vila was raised at the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, where she grew to be a favorite among visitors and an important ambassador for her species. Participating in a landmark study on great ape intelligence that spanned six years, Vila contributed to the base of scientific knowledge about gorillas. Then paired with Albert, another San Diego legend, she gave birth in 1965 to Alvila, the first gorilla born in San Diego and only the fifth gorilla to be born in a zoo.
Upon moving to the Safari Park in 1975, Vila quickly endeared herself to the visitors and staff. Although reproductive problems prevented her from maintaining additional pregnancies, Vila’s gentleness and patience with infants made her a perfect candidate to be a surrogate mother for infants whose own mothers could not or would not take care of them. One such infant was her granddaughter, Alberta. Raised in the Park’s Animal Care Center, Alberta started making daily visits to the gorilla exhibit with her keepers at four months of age. It was Vila’s calm manner and sustained interest in the infant that earned Vila the opportunity to raise her granddaughter.
While Vila acted as a surrogate mother for hand-reared infants, mother-reared infants have also gravitated toward her. This attraction proved invaluable when Vila took over the care of Schroeder, a three-year-old whose mother had died of a rare condition. Although he no longer needed to nurse, such a young gorilla would still be in need of nurturing. Fortunately, he and Vila had already established an exceptionally strong bond, and she immediately took over his care, insuring his place in the troop.
Characteristically, Vila is letting our newest baby, little Monroe, call the shots in their relationship! At five months of age, the little guy is really starting to explore, and his mom, Kokamo, ever watchful, is loosening her grip. Just this morning, Monroe had his nose right next to Vila’s face as she ate some melon, and later, when he was clumsily trying to climb a hanging tire, Vila lent a helping hand and cradled his head in her palm.
Vila has a long history of nurturing infants and mentoring other gorillas, which not only establishes her as an invaluable member of the troop but also identifies the strength of the troop social dynamic and family unit. The capability of gorillas to overcome inadequacies in their rearing through the establishment of conspecific relationships is remarkable. The relationships between the individuals continue to evolve as youngsters are born into the troop and throughout all the stages of life.
Little is known about gerontology in gorillas, as they have only been studied in the wild since the mid-1960s. Throughout her life, Vila has and will continue to contribute immeasurably to the scientific base of knowledge for her species. She also continues to add a rich dimension to the daily life of her troop. It is a rare opportunity we have at the Safari Park to witness such a remarkably full gorilla life and vibrant, natural troop dynamic.
At the impressive age of 54, Vila is an elderly, but quite healthy, gorilla. Living in southern California certainly seems to agree with her. She receives a daily senior multivitamin. She has lost some teeth and, yes, tooth loss and periodontal disease have been reported in free-ranging gorilla populations. In the wild, this type of condition would eventually lead to the gorilla’s demise. Although Vila has lost a number of teeth throughout her life, she has the distinct advantage of exceptional medical care, and she continues to enjoy an excellent quality of life. Corn on the cob is still a favorite, and she doesn’t miss a kernel!
Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, A Tribute to Gorilla Alberta.