Streamers, a cardboard castle, party snacks and six birthday cakes ushered in a special celebration at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park this week: a beloved gorilla’s 60th birthday and her spunky granddaughter’s first.
On Tuesday, the Safari Park celebrated Vila, the matriarch of five generations, and Leslie, a toddler born last fall to mom Kokamo and dad Winston.
Keepers set up an elaborate “Tea for Two”-themed party for the duo, with bells and whistles fit for a milestone birthday.
“Sixty is a very big deal in the gorilla world because there are very few gorillas anywhere near that age,” Peggy Sexton, lead animal keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park explained. “Vila is believed to be the second or third oldest gorilla in the world. And she’s doing great.”
The celebration – attended by all nine members of Vila’s family at the park – included decorations, gift boxes and paper cups and gourds filled with popcorn, sunflower seeds and Cheerios. Six multi-colored cakes made of yams, carrots and fruit rounded out the treats.
Vila and her troop went to town.
The birthday girl walked straight to the tea party table and began nibbling on the banquet of treats.
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“The gorillas enjoyed the party immensely. They’re destroyed all the decorations and enjoyed all the goodies, and they’ll be playing with this stuff all day,” said Sexton. “It’s a big day for them.”
Leslie, although new to this birthday party thing, enjoyed the shindig, too. She snacked a little bit and then clung to her mom, riding on her back.
Sexton said Leslie has been a playful addition to the troop. Full of energy, Sexton said she’s your typical toddler.
“She’s a little pistol, actually,” she said. “She’s quite the explorer. Having Joanne who’s 3, Monroe who’s 6 and Frank who’s 9, all these youngsters in the troop – it’s quite a dynamic troop.”
According to the Safari Park, Vila is believed to have been born in the Congo in October 1957. There are only two other known western lowland gorillas close in age to Vila, per the park: one at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas and another at the Berlin Zoo in Germany, both of whom are estimated to have been born in 1957, too.
After Vila arrived in the United States, she was hand-raised at the San Diego Zoo and later moved to the Safari Park. She has lived a healthy life, serving as a surrogate mother for many western lowland gorillas over her lifetime.
The troop – including an adult male silverback, four adult females, two young males, one young female and little Leslie – can be seen daily at the Safari Park, typically eating leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, vegetables and leaves.
Gorillas are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Gorilla numbers have declined dramatically over the past 15 years and San Diego Zoo Global continues its conservation efforts in collaboration with organizations across Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon.