Follow the boardwalk trails to experience an enticing taste of Africa. In the Columbus Zoo’s African Forest you’ll encounter a friendly flock of African greys, the captivating okapi with its dark chocolate-brown coat, tall zebra-like leggings, long browsing tongue and gentle eyes, and don’t forget to scan the tall grasses for the illusive leopard hidden within. Among the animal life here in the African Forest you’ll also see over 700 species of plant life that is indigenous to Africa.
Central to the African Forest exhibit is the ‘Gorillas in the Round’, an enclosure where visitors can watch western lowland gorillas from every angle. It was here we met part of the zoos troop and watched on as two of the troops teenagers ran and chased each other along the many ropes and ladders, around the hillocks and termite mound. It certainly brings a smile to your face to see captive animals so playful and engaged in their surroundings in such wild abandonment. As well as the large outdoor enclosure there are a few indoor ones. It was inside that we met the rest of the troop. Two of which included a very attentive mother, Cassie, and her adventuresome seven month old baby named Nadami, who I could have watched for hours. Keeping an almost constant eye on her little bundle of joy the mother, like I, watched on as this awkward youngster tried to stagger around on her hind legs while holding a branch as long as she was like a walking stick, and then later decided to entertain herself with a cereal box which most likely contained food enrichment.
Another gorilla we met there was the famous Colo who sat watching and clapping as her keepers cleaned out her adjoining enclosure. I spoke with a friendly and informative zoo volunteer who told me all about how full of character Colo is and how she loves attention from her keepers. Colo gained her star status in 1956 for being the first gorilla born in captivity. In 2006 she also added another title to her block for being the oldest gorilla in captivity. Now at 55 years of age Colo after a handful of offspring is still relatively healthy and strong. Last year a local author even published a biography about the beloved Colo.
The Columbus Zoo has been a leader in breeding gorillas with over 30 born since Colo’s birth in 1956. The zoo also had the first ever gorilla twins born in a zoo, who were born to Colo’s offspring but raised by her. Another great achievement is their development of a unique surrogacy program, where specific gorillas that are receptive to their keepers are trained to take over the raising of infants, who for whatever reasons cannot be raised by their own mother, with the help of their keepers.
Along the path that would lead us to the bonobos I caught sight of little wild bunnies almost hidden in the bushes. It’s always delightful to see wild animals on zoo grounds, even though some wild animals can prove very problematic. Only twelve zoos worldwide and eight in the US house the critically endangered bonobos outside their native Congo, one being the Columbus Zoo. Some confuse the bonobo with the chimpanzee, but bonobos are smaller and calmer than the larger and more frenzied chimp. There were three separate enclosures for the bonobos, two indoor equipped with jungle gyms and one large outdoor yard full fo massive trees, plenty of ropes and places to rest and hide. In the first enclosure sat a small troop which included a mother with her small infant, who never went more than an arm’s length away from mom. The mother sat grooming another female as the baby twirled around the mom and squeezed between the two females to grab their attention. There was an even younger baby hanging tight to its mothers belly in the outdoor yard. Mother and baby sat watching the large troop as they ran around, chased each other through the bushes and swung from the ropes strung up in the trees. This was my first encounter with bonobos and I found them strangely beautiful.