Founders and friends

Three are among the oldest of their kind living in the world. Three are grandparents. One is a great-grandparent. Two are confirmed bachelors who never went ape over the ladies. One never minded the ladies, but the ladies haven’t exactly gone ape over him. Five were born in the wild more than 40 years ago, and all represent critically endangered species we would never know to value or protect, had we not shared their lives.

Gorillas and orangutans are considered geriatric age of about 35. Six of the great apes at Zoo Atlanta have already surpassed that figure, one by nearly 20 years. Who are they, and why should you know and share their stories? It’s time for a different kind of “senior moment.” Meet our very own greatest generation.

Shamba, 53
Western lowland gorilla

Shamba is the Zoo’s eldest gorilla and one of the top 10 oldest gorillas living in a zoological setting worldwide. Universally loved by her caregivers for her sweet disposition – a contrast to her deceptively cranky expression – Shamba is the mother of silverback Taz and the grandmother to his brood of six. For her 50th birthday in 2009, primate keepers crafted a lavish fruit basket that the birthday girl was allowed to enjoy – all to herself.

Ozzie, 51
Western lowland gorilla

Ozzie is the oldest male gorilla in the world, but he’s special here at home for many other reasons. The father of 11 and grandfather of eight, Ozzie has made clear contributions to the western lowland gorilla population, but he is also a trailblazer for some of the zoological community’s most groundbreaking training advances. In 2009 at the age of 48, he became the first gorilla in the world ever to voluntarily participate in a blood pressure reading using an arm cuff.

Choomba, 50
Western lowland gorilla

Choomba is a genealogist’s dream. The mother of the late Willie B.’s first and fourth offspring, Kudzoo and Sukari, she is the grandmother of Macy Baby, Merry Leigh and Gunther. The mother of Machi, she is the grandmother of Willie B., Jr.; the grandmother of Louisville Zoo’s Mia Moja; and the great-grandmother of North Carolina Zoo’s Olympia. In her youth, this no-nonsense lady’s personality was as dominant as her place in the family tree; she now shares an off-exhibit habitat with Shamba. The habitat has been retrofitted especially for the geriatric pair, affectionately referred to as “the golden girls.”

Ivan, 50
Western lowland gorilla

Ivan was one of the nation’s best-known apes before ever setting foot in The Ford African Rain Forest. Once famous as “The Shopping Mall Gorilla,” Ivan lived for more than 25 years in an indoor enclosure in a department store in Tacoma, Wash., before his story prompted a national movement to have him relocated to Zoo Atlanta in 1995. Despite numerous opportunities to share his habitat with female companions, Ivan has never followed in the footsteps of his prolific fellow founders, having sired no offspring to date. Although he has now been part of the Zoo Atlanta family for more than 15 years, his friends and fans in the Pacific Northwest have never forgotten; of our more than 1,500 residents, Ivan is the most asked-about animal on the Zoo’s Facebook profile.

Alan, 41
Sumatran orangutan

The oldest male Sumatran orangutan in the U.S., Alan has also been ranked by the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP) as North America’s most genetically valuable male. The majority of Alan’s experiences with females, however, have not been indicative of his status as the continent’s most eligible orangutan bachelor. Born at the St. Louis Zoo in 1971, he is nonetheless a shining example of a mature male Sumatran orangutan, and his booming territorial long call frequently serves to notify other males, both orangutan and human, that this is his turf.

Biji, 41
Sumatran orangutan

Zoo Atlanta’s eldest orangutan, Biji was born at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 1970. While she has never formed close bonds with females in any of her groups, Biji is now the “roommate” of Alan’s golden years, and has proven to be more tolerant of his attentions than most. The Zoo’s senior orangutan isn’t known for conservation of water resources; one of her favorite entertainments is a tub full of water – preferably with suds.

Joe, 49
Western lowland gorilla

Joe reminds us of the circle of life that defines all stories. The third oldest male gorilla living in a zoological setting, Joe died on July 31, 2012, at the Dewar Wildlife Trust in Morganton, Ga. Zoo Atlanta has entered into a partnership with the Dewar Wildlife Trust, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) certified facility designed to house gorillas, and as part of that partnership, Joe had been under the care of the Zoo Atlanta Veterinary Team, in conjunction with Francis Cipullo, DVM, his longtime veterinarian. Earlier this week, Joe’s veterinary team made the difficult decision to euthanize the geriatric gorilla following a recent marked decline in his health along with ongoing chronic conditions, including cardiac disease. A resident of the Dewar Wildlife Trust since 2003, Joe had become a special figure to many people in Georgia over the past decade, and he will be missed by all who knew and cared about him.

Friends, ambassadors, and, in three cases, ancestors, Shamba, Ozzie, Choomba, Ivan, Alan, Biji and Joe represent more than just records broken, headlines made, or offspring born. Their generation has fostered our appreciation of two critically endangered species most of us will never see in the wild. Their long lives are a testament to superior care, but their stories inspire us to save their species.