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San Diego Home To One Of World’s Oldest Gorillas

Evening Edition

San Diego is home to one of the oldest gorillas in captivity, 55-year-old Vila, who was raised at the San Diego Zoo. She's now the matriarch of a family of five endangered lowland gorillas at the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido.

The lunchtime crowd gathered at the San Diego Safari Park to see the gorillas while zookeepers stock the trees with celery, romaine lettuce and kale, some of the gorillas' favorites. As if on cue, Winston the silverback male leads the troop to the awaiting buffet followed by Kami, mother Kokamo and baby Monroe. And trailing behind is grandma Vila, who recently celebrated her 55th birthday.

"Actually she's the third oldest known gorilla in the world," Peggy Sexton, the lead zookeeper in the mammal department, said.

She says Vila is doing pretty well for a senior citizen. In fact, all the gorillas are on diets, so portion control is important to good health. The males can weigh up to 500 pounds and females like Vila are usually half that size.

"She's actually in really good health, living in Southern California doesn't hurt," Sexton said. She and Vila go back 37 years when Vila was moved from the San Diego Zoo downtown to the Safari Park. Vila now acts as a surrogate mother to other baby gorillas.

"Their behavior is very much learned behavior. Some animals, their behavior is hard-wired, but gorillas are like us, they have to learn behavior, they have to learn parenting behavior and social skills," Sexton said.

They spend the day grooming, feeding and playing. Winston the 40-year-old male prefers to pick his food from the trees, not the ground. And his baby boy Monroe injects life into the troop. Sexton says they live longer in captivity and benefit from human medicine.

"Kind of the opposite of what usually happens, usually we benefit from animal medicine. They get very well taken care of," Sexton said.

Gorillas also like to look at themselves in the mirror, and Sexton says they're highly intelligent.

"If they have a ding or something on their foot, we can ask them for 'foot' and they will give it to us, they get flu shots just like we do, so we ask them for 'shoulder' in giving them an injection," she said pointing to her shoulder.

Sexton says that's why building trust and a rapport with these animals is important, because you don't want them taking it out on you later. Vila participated in a landmark study on great ape intelligence, providing researchers with a better understanding of this critically endangered species.

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