ATLANTA — Zoo Atlanta announced last week the passing of Choomba, a 59-year-old female western lowland gorilla. The second-oldest gorilla at Zoo Atlanta, Choomba was also the fourth-oldest gorilla in the world.
The Animal Care and Veterinary Teams had been monitoring Choomba closely in recent days following a marked decline in her physical condition due to advanced arthritis and other age-related complications. Given her poor prognosis and with concern for her comfort and quality of life, the teams made the difficult decision to euthanize her on Jan. 13.
Choomba was one of the founding members of the gorilla population at Zoo Atlanta, having arrived at the Zoo in the 1980s at the time of the opening of the landmark Ford African Rain Forest. She is perhaps best remembered by long-time Atlantans as the mother of Kudzoo, the first offspring of the legendary late Willie B. The matriarch of four generations of gorillas, Choomba was the mother of Machi, Kudzoo, and Sukari, as well as the grandmother of Willie B. Jr., Merry Leigh, Anaka, and Mijadala, all of whom live at Zoo Atlanta. In addition to these individuals, her descendants include grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a great-great grandchild living at accredited zoos around the U.S.
“This is an extremely difficult day for Zoo Atlanta and most particularly for Choomba’s care team, who knew her intimately and saw and cared for her daily with the greatest dedication,” Vice President of Collections and Conservation for Zoo Atlanta Jennifer Mickelberg said in a news release. “We commend the truly valiant efforts of our Gorilla Care Team and veterinary teams to help Choomba, from supportive care and laser therapy for her arthritis, to forward-thinking updates to the spaces used by our geriatric gorillas. Choomba leaves a tremendous legacy at Zoo Atlanta, in the zoological gorilla population in North America, and in the hearts of those who knew her best.”
Gorillas are considered geriatric after the age of about 40. In recent years, Choomba had been living in a senior social group with Ozzie, who at age 61 is the world’s oldest living male gorilla; daughter Machi, 45; and female Kuchi, 37. As part of the care of these individuals, Zoo Atlanta has risen to leadership in the care of geriatric gorillas, and members of the Zoo’s Gorilla Care Team are regularly sought out and shadowed by animal care professionals at other organizations for their advancements in positive reinforcement training and for their innovations in habitat and space accommodations for senior gorillas.
In addition to her many contributions as a companion, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother, Choomba was an invaluable ambassador for her species, which over the course of her lifetime became critically endangered.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, over a 25-year period, the combined threats of poaching, illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade, habitat loss and emerging diseases have reduced western lowland gorilla populations by 60 percent, with declines of as much as 90 percent in some parts of their range in western Africa. Populations living within North American zoos are overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Gorilla Species Survival Plan, which seeks to maintain a self-sustaining, genetically diverse gorilla population for future generations.
Twenty-four gorillas have been born at Zoo Atlanta. Research by zoo staff has influenced industrywide improvements in the care of gorillas in zoos, as well as enhanced understanding of gorilla biology, with more than 100 published papers on maternal care, reproduction, social behavior and cognition.
Zoo Atlanta supports the AZA Gorilla SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) Program, which focuses expertise within accredited zoos. For more than 20 years, the zoo has supported its long-time partner in gorilla conservation, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, by providing pro-bono headquarters space, information technology support and financial resources. The zoo and the Fossey Fund were among the organizations to host the first-ever World Gorilla Day in 2017.
A necropsy, or the non-human equivalent of an autopsy, will be performed through the zoo’s partnership with the University of Georgia Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Preliminary results should be available in several weeks.