Happy Birthday, Colo!

Wikipedia Public Domain
Colo, the Gorilla

On this date in 1956, Colo was born. Her birth marked the first time a gorilla was born in captivity. And she’s thrived better than most. At 54 years of age today, Colo is the oldest captive gorilla living in the world. She shares today as her birthday with her grandson J.J.

Colo’s mother rejected her at birth. This rejection is a relatively common but not fully understood occurrence for captive-born gorillas. This lack of understanding isn’t particularly surprising, as researchers don’t know much about gorilla births in the wild. Her early human caretakers, who hand-reared the baby gorilla, briefly referred to her as Cuddles. Her name was chosen through a contest and is short for her birthplace: COLumbus, Ohio. Those caretakers bottle-fed Colo and dressed her in clothes. Colo would go on to bear three children of her own, with her mate Bongo. She did not raise those gorillas, though Colo did care for twin grandchildren.

On the one hand, anthropomorphizing this gorilla—dressing her in clothes, referring to second-generation offspring as grandchildren—is evidence of our own self-centeredness. It’s awfully presumptive to think that Colo shares our emotions and ways of thinking about the world. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto an animal—or another human, for the matter—to explain their behavior, we may miss the opportunity to understand that individual more deeply.

Empathy is a tricky thing; it depends on our ability to understand and project our own emotions, but ultimately requires the broader ability to understand another’s perspective in addition to our own. In the issue of American Scholar out this week, Richard Restak explains that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain “is concerned with representing our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as providing us with representations of the mental states of other people.” When we anthropomorphize gorillas without understanding their mental states, though, we may jump to conclusions and miss other interesting and relevant possibilities.

On the other hand, it’s no wonder we think of these great apes as very much like humans. Depending on how one parses it, since some genes vary more than others, gorillas share about their 95% of DNA with human beings. The chimpanzee and bonobo are our only closer genetic relatives, with 98% similarity. We remember first coming across this fact, at the Columbus Zoo, where Colo has lived all her life. We read the fact on a placard as we watched a woman bottle-feed a bonobo behind the glass.

Wikipedia Creative Commons
Gorillia Habitats (image by Zoologist/Creative Commons)

Gorilla gestation is about 8½ months, nearly identical to that of humans. Baby gorillas stay with their mothers for three or four years, a timeframe reminiscent of human children, who generally, in the United States, go off to kindergarten at age five. Females mature at about age 11, often earlier in captivity. Human girls reach menarche at about age 12, often earlier if heavier. Gorillas have even been seen having sex face to face.

We’ve long known apes are social animals, living in troops with one or a few mature males, several females, and their young. Recent studies indicate that gorillas may be empathetic, too, which makes sense for social creatures. Richard Restak, in his discussion of empathy in humans, links our social nature with our ability to empathize: “The research finding that out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others are processed in the same brain areas confirms what sages and religious thinkers have been saying throughout the ages: we’re not isolated components in an impersonal social network but, rather, deeply social creatures capable of imagining each other’s internal experiences.”

What if apes, being social creatures, are also empathizers? One researcher points out that both humans and apes console each other after, say, a defeat, whereas monkeys do not. In 2008, a gorilla in a German zoo clutched her dead baby, the second offspring she had rejected, and the zookeeper there said that mothers in the wild sometimes carry around their dead babies for weeks. Researchers in Scotland observed chimpanzees dealing with an impending death through increased grooming of the sick chimp. The chimps suffered fitful sleep in the immediate wake of the death and avoided the spot where the chimp had died. Another researcher found that orangutans share the phenomenon of contagious laughing with humans. Still other research shows that ape babies make pouting faces to get their mothers’ attention and, in one experiment, tried to make the experimenter smile.

Wikipedia Public DomainWe know, too, that gorillas use tools, turning sticks into digging implements or weapons. And there’s Koko, the gorilla who has been taught sign language to communicate with humans (see video below). Koko is the subject of a long-term research project. Because gorillas don’t have the physical capacity for human speech, the researchers use sign language with Koko to study interspecies communication and its possibilities. The thinking is that each species has its own communication system; gorillas use gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate with each other. And some species are sufficiently intelligent and aware to be taught ways, like American Sign Language, to communicate with humans; Koko scored in the 80s and 90s on IQ tests. One wonders whether her researchers would do as well on a test designed and administered by Koko.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Western Gorilla—Colo’s species—as critically endangered. IUCN uses this classification based on projections, as of 2008, that the gorilla is likely to face an 80% population reduction over three generations (66 years, from 1980 to 2046). Hunting—poaching—and disease, particularly Ebola, have devastated the wild gorilla population in Africa over the last two decades. Mining, the timber industry, farming, and climate change threaten the gorillas’ habitat. The Eastern Gorilla—the Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorillas—is considered endangered, but not yet critically endangered. Twenty years ago, the Western Gorilla—the Western Lowlad and Cross River gorillas—was considered vulnerable; ten years ago, this gorilla was endangered. Now, this gorilla is critically endangered, and the next step on this trajectory is to become extinct in the wild.

This morning, Nancy Roe Pimm was on hand at the Columbus Zoo to sign her book Colo’s Story. The zoo celebrated Colo’s birthday with cake for the apes, and special cake for the zoo’s visitors too. More than a year ago, Colo was anesthetized for a series of medical tests, because her keepers worried about her bouts of fasting and lethargy. She seemed to be depressed, perhaps showing signs of aging. But the tests showed nothing wrong physically, and her heart was strong. Undoubtedly, Colo didn’t think of her lethargy, medical tests, or her birthday party today the same way the humans do. Yet this celebration offers Lofty Ambitions an opportunity to ponder how animals are studied and considered.

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