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54th Birthday Party for Gorilla

Vila examines a birthday "gift."

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!

Winston's curiousity is piqued by a colorful "present."

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.

Winston strikes a pose next to a whimisical cardboard creature.

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.

Kokamo and son Monroe enjoy some leafy goodies.

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!

Watch video of all the fun!

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, A Tribute to Gorilla Alberta.

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Tribute to Gorilla Alberta

Alberta will be missed!

Alberta, a well-known and popular gorilla resident of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, died peacefully in her sleep last night, October 13, 2011.

Born on March 21, 1979, at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, California, to Alvila and Freddy, Alberta was initially cared for by her mother. However, it was soon apparent that Alvila had no milk to feed her baby, so Alberta was cared for by the zoo director’s wife until she was healthy enough to be moved to the Safari Park. On April 23, 1979, Alberta arrived at the Park and was raised in our Animal Care Center, where she quickly became a favorite of visitors and employees.

Starting at about three months old, she made daily visits to the Park’s gorilla exhibit with her keepers, where she met her grandmother, Vila, and other members of the troop. Once she was old enough to move permanently to the exhibit, Vila took over her care.

Alberta flourished in the normal gorilla family troop, learned appropriate gorilla behavior, and helped raise little ones. Eventually, when Winston came to the Park, Alberta was introduced to him, and they had three offspring (Ione, Mbili, and Ndjole). Alberta’s mothering style was far from the norm but very successful. Gorilla mothers usually have their infants riding on their backs at about 3 months of age; 10 days old was Alberta’s idea. She also adopted an infant (Kebara) from a female (Penny) who was not prepared for motherhood. Alberta was still lactating and able to feed and care for the infant. Her own infant, Ndjole, was 10½ months old at the time. With Alberta and Ndjole’s help, Penny learned appropriate maternal behavior and subsequently was involved in raising both of those infants.

Since Monroe’s birth in June 2011, Alberta had been spending lots of time building her relationship with Kokamo, Monroe’s mother. As a result, Alberta was able to hold and play with Monroe occasionally and with increasing frequency.

Alberta recently had some shoulder issues and was a willing participant in her physical therapy, as she enjoyed all the attention from her keepers. A unique character, Alberta was an important influence in her troop, capable of solving complex social issues. She will be tremendously missed by Winston, Vila, Kami, Kokamo, and Monroe, and well as her keepers, Park staff, and visitors.

Peggy Sexton is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gorilla Vila is 52!

See our Facebook photo tribute to Alberta’s life…

Update (October 21, 2011): The gorilla Alberta, who died recently at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is greatly missed by the animal care staff who worked with her.  Her death was sudden and unexpected. Necropsy findings indicate that she died from an aortic dissection that ruptured (sometimes called a dissecting aneurysm).

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Gorilla Vila is 52!

gorilla_vila_1Vila has long been a favorite of visitors and staff at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. She is one of the three oldest known gorillas living today, and we had a birthday party for her on Wednesday, October 28. We wrapped presents full of fruit, nuts, and seeds for the entire troop, and Vila enjoyed a peanut-butter frosted banana ice cake topped with carrot “candles.” The gorilla exhibit was decorated with flowers, ginger leaves, colorful streamers, and “Happy Birthday” signs stuck to rocks with peanut butter. See video

gorilla_vila_2Although she is “up there” in age, Vila is in excellent health, has a good appetite, and normal behavior. She does have some age-related issues, so she does get senior vitamins and medicine for arthritis, which works well: she has no trouble getting around.

Living in Southern California helps as well, as the temperate climate is very easy on an aging gorilla, and even though she is missing a few teeth, corn on the cob is one of her favorite foods and she never misses a kernel!

gorilla_vila_3When Vila goes on exhibit in the morning, we always say she looks like a powdered donut because bits of hay always stick to her! She likes to play with or cover herself in whatever she can find inside (hay, excelsior, paper towels) and it shows. For some reason, these items don’t stick to the other gorillas with quite the same grip!

Vila’s only child, Alvila, resides at the San Diego Zoo as do several of Vila’s grandchildren and her great-grandson, Frank (see post Frank the Gorilla: First Year). Frank the Gorilla: First Year She also has two great-great grandchildren at the Park, Jamani and Ajari. Vila has been a surrogate mom to many others and a mentor to many (including Winston, who needed some instruction on proper gorilla behavior), establishing herself as a very integral member of the Park’s gorilla troop.

We fully expect Vila to add years and years to the longevity record!

Peggy Sexton is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.