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Alvila, first gorilla born at San Diego Zoo, dies at age 45

September 30, 2010 | 10:33 am


Alvila, the first gorilla born at the San Diego Zoo and a favorite of zoo visitors for decades, died Thursday morning after several years of declining health.

The offspring of Albert and Vila, two gorillas brought to the zoo from Africa, Alvila was born June 3, 1965, a birth that gained national headlines.

As she declined in recent days, older gorillas gathered nearby, bringing food to her, seemingly to offer her comfort. She had suffered a series of old-age maladies, including severe arthritis in her knees since 1989 and had undergone back surgery in 2002.

The other gorillas at the zoo were allowed to see her one last time Thursday morning after her death, zoo officials said.

Alvila had four offspring and among the zoo's gorillas assumed a maternal role. She adopted a baby gorilla, Imani , in the mid-1990s that had been abandoned by its mother. She seemed to enjoy watching younger gorillas engaging in rough-and-tumble play.

"She was a good aunt, a good grandmother," said gorilla keeper Michael Bates.

Vila, Alvila's mother, remains at the zoo and, at age 53, is the third-oldest gorilla at a North American zoo. Alvila spent some time at the Fresno Zoo before returning to San Diego.

Alvila and her then-mate, Memba, were sent to the Philadelphia Zoo for several months in 1989 and 1990 while the San Diego Zoo's Gorilla Tropics were under construction. For the trip east, the two traveled in a jet loaned to the zoo by the San Diego Padres.

The zoo has 11 gorillas; the zoo's Safari Park, formerly the Wild Animal Park, has five. In the wild, lowland gorillas are an endangered species.

By nature, gorillas are social creatures, with roles assigned by gender, age and size. The death of a matriarch is expected to have an effect on the remaining animals as the social familial structure rearranges.

"It's going to be huge," Bates said.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Alvila, lowland gorilla. Credit: San Diego Zoo