Gorilla birthdays are always a momentous occasion at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, but today’s (Oct. 24) festivities were especially significant. Vila (pronounced VEE-la), the world’s second oldest gorilla, celebrated her 60th birthday with a joyful party that included all nine members of her family at the Safari Park, including a second birthday girl—1-year-old Leslie. Both gorillas enjoyed an elaborate “Tea for Two” themed party, complete with a plethora of decorations, gift boxes, streamers and a little cardboard castle. Animal care staff and volunteers stuffed paper cups and gourds with popcorn, sunflower seeds and Cheerios for the entire troop to enjoy, and nutrition staff placed six multicolored cakes—made of yams, carrots and assorted fruits—around the habitat, making this one of the most elaborate parties ever thrown for this gorilla troop.
Each member of the troop, including birthday girls Vila and Leslie, entered the habitat and almost immediately started to partake of the buffet of tasty snacks scattered throughout. As Leslie reclined in mom’s arms, Vila went straight to the tea party table and started to sample the banquet of treats provided.
Vila is estimated to have been born in October 1957, in the Congo. After arriving in the United States, the young ape was hand-raised at the San Diego Zoo and later moved to the Safari Park—where she’s remained in excellent health and continues to thrive. 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. Young Leslie was born last fall at the Safari Park to mom Kokamo and dad Winston. Over the past year, she has grown to be a curious and playful baby, and she can often be seen riding on her mom’s back or hanging out with her older brothers and sister. Animal care staff said both gorillas are amazing members of the troop, and it was great to see grandma Vila have just as much fun as the baby.
“The gorillas, I think, enjoyed the party immensely,” said Peggy Sexton, lead keeper in the mammal department at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “They’ve destroyed all the decorations and gotten all the goodies, and they’ll be playing with the stuff all day. So, it’s a big day for them.”
Gorillas are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Threats to the species include people hunting gorillas for food, called bushmeat, and loss of habitat due to logging and mining. The past 15 years have seen a dramatic decline in gorilla numbers, with almost half of the entire eastern gorilla species population believed to have been wiped out. San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with multiple organizations and local conservationists in Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon to shed light on gorilla genetic variations across regions, and to promote community-led conservation initiatives.
There are two other western lowland gorillas that are close in age to Vila: one at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas (estimated to have been born in 1957, arriving in the U.S. in June 1958) and one at the Berlin Zoo in Germany (estimated to have been born in 1957, arriving at the Berlin Zoo in May 1959). The Safari Park cares for nine western lowland gorillas—an adult male silverback, four adult females, two young males, one young female, and the baby Leslie.