Standing close to a 430-pound gorilla, his brow furrowed and eyes stern, it’s easy to tense up. However, once you adjust to his sheer size and powerful appearance, it becomes clear that he is actually remarkably calm—peaceful even. What many people don’t realize is that gorillas are naturally quiet and peaceful. They are gentle giants.
This is especially true of the geriatric silverback who lives at the Safari Park. Now 51 years old, Winston wins the hearts of all those who come into contact with him—both people and gorillas. His easygoing, kind, and relatable character, combined with his experience, size, and influence, make him a likable and trusted leader of the family troop. “We often say he is the best of us,” says Kelly Casavant, Lead Wildlife Care Specialist. “His level of compassion, and how kind he is, is unsurpassed. We see it with us, but we definitely see it with how he treats the troop members.”
In a group, or “troop” of gorillas, one adult male called a “silverback” (for the gray hair on his back) leads the rest. He makes all of the family decisions, is responsible for their safety and well-being, and settles any quarrels that might arise. With a troop of five female gorillas vying for his attention, Winston often serves as the family peacekeeper. He’s known for his endless patience and tolerance, and for choosing his battles wisely. Although he has closer bonds with some of his family members (like Kamilah who he’s lived with for nearly thirty years), he doles out patience equally and abundantly to everyone—even Leslie, the “teenager” in the troop who tends to provoke others.
Because of his exceptional tolerance, Winston allowed an unrelated male to join his troop on two separate occasions. Silverbacks don’t typically accept stepchildren—especially young males who might later challenge their authority. But thanks to Winston’s tolerant and accepting nature, he welcomed a young male named Paul Donn and then later, Frank, into his troop. “That’s pretty unusual for a silverback,” says Kelly. “That’s how kind and mellow he is.”
Even though Winston holds the most power, and has the most to lose out of anyone in the troop, he chooses to lead with tenderness, patience, and kindness. In addition to allowing more gorillas to thrive under his watchful care, Winston’s kindness also sets an extraordinary example for us. As close relatives to people, (we are both great apes, after all) it’s easy to draw connections between the social dynamics of gorillas and our own. For the millions of guests who connect with Winston each year, the message is clear: the best way to lead is with your heart.
While the purity of Winston’s heart is clearly extraordinary—it unfortunately shares a diagnosis that is common in older gorillas—heart disease. While receiving care for SARS-CoV-2 in 2021 (one of the world’s first known cases of COVID-19 in great apes), veterinarians discovered that Winston had significant heart disease. His healthcare team, plus two specialty veterinary cardiologists, two human cardiologists, human and veterinary anesthesiologists, and an expert support team, cared for Winston through an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, cardiac ultrasounds, and heart medication. They now keep a close eye on his heart with the help of an implanted heart monitor.
As our veterinary team continues to care for Winston’s heart, they are working in collaboration with the Great Ape Heart Project, a group of experts working to understand and treat heart disease in great apes. By sharing what we know about Winston’s heart health with other experts, the insights and knowledge gained may help shape future recommendations for gorillas in zoos and in their native habitats across the world.
At 51, Winston’s age is now well above the median life expectancy for male gorillas, which is 33. Much like an elderly person, the natural effects of aging, heart disease, and the daily responsibilities of caring for five younger (sometimes rambunctious) gorillas have slowed him down a bit. In spite of this, Winston continues to teach us all a great deal about his heart—and the nature of unconditional love.
As Winston continues to live out his days at the Safari Park, we invite you to experience a special moment with him by connecting, heart-to-heart. For if there’s one thing we can all use a little more of, it’s the gentle love of a kind soul.
Connect with Winston today by visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Gorilla Forest.
You can help us save gorillas across the world by joining us as an ally for wildlife. Discover more about our global conservation work, including how we’re helping gorillas in their native African Forests at sdzwa.org.