Fifty-Eight and Looking Great: San Diego Zoo Safari Park Celebrates Birthday of Matriarch Gorilla

One of the world’s oldest known gorillas celebrated her 58th birthday this morning at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Vila (pronounced VEE-la) is believed to have been born in October of 1957 in the Congo. After arriving in the United States, Vila was hand-raised at the San Diego Zoo and then moved to the Safari Park, where she has lived since 1975. Vila is the matriarch of five generations, and she has served as a surrogate mother for several hand-raised western lowland gorillas during her lifetime.

The celebration for Vila and the seven other gorillas in her troop was big—the exhibit was filled with enrichment items ranging from a cardboard zebra to messages written in peanut butter, streamers and the Nutritional Services department’s signature ice cake. However, it was the smaller ice cupcakes that caught Vila’s eye upon entering the exhibit, and she stood on her legs and reached up to the top of a rock to get two of the tiny treats of frozen fruit, frosted with pureed banana and sweet potatoes. Another favorite food is popcorn and Vila worked to get every last piece from a narrow-necked bottle filled with the air-popped treat.

The enrichment items, which included several cardboard tubes made to look like ears of corn, were created by volunteers at the Safari Park and placed around the entire exhibit. The Nutritional Services department created the frozen treats and the Horticulture department provided special cuttings from plants for the party. Keeper staff was tasked with placing everything on exhibit and setting out the gorilla troop’s usual daily food. Keepers also wrote birthday messages and drew festive pictures in chalk, on the rock walls of the habitat.

Vila, despite being one of the oldest-known gorillas, is in excellent health and continues to thrive at the Safari Park. Keepers say that while she is slower than she used to be, she still plays with the young male gorillas, Frank and Monroe. She has had no recent health issues and is given a daily vitamin, medicine for arthritis and a baby aspirin, for preventive measure.

There are three other western lowland gorillas that are close in age to Vila. One lives at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio (born at the Columbus Zoo in December 1956), one at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas (estimated to have been born in 1957, and arrived in the US in June 1958) and one at the Berlin Zoo in Germany (estimated to have been born in 1957, and arrived at the Berlin Zoo in May 1959).

The Safari Park cares for eight western lowland gorillas—an adult male silverback, four adult females, two young males and one young female, who made international news when she was delivered via caesarean section in 2014.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Photo taken on October 30, 2015 by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park