Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla 'Samantha' Turns 50

Jan 30, 2020

Updated 12 p.m.

The oldest living animal ever born at the Cincinnati Zoo turned 50 Friday. "Samantha" is the sixth oldest of the more than 360 gorillas in North America.

Considered the "Grand Ol' Lady" of the Cincinnati Zoo, Samantha is being honored with a birthday cake made of yogurt, fruit and "nutritionally complete primate chow," with a few surprises hidden in the cake base. She and her family group will also enjoy "a forest full of their favorite plant snack items like forsythia, banana leaves, fiscus, bamboo as well as fresh melons."

Samantha carefully swiped a finger through the yogurt and peanut butter icing, delighting in licking it from her finger.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Samantha plopped down in front of the cake and carefully removed bits of fruit, sampling them one by one before swiping her finger through the yogurt and peanut butter icing. After she had her fill, she shared with the other gorillas in her family group, including Jomo, who took to the cake with gusto, knocking off the top layer.

"It's hard to wrap your head around the breadth and depth of Samantha's life," says Ron Evans, curator of primates. "She's a mother; she's a grandmother; she's a great-grandmother; she's a foster mother to an orphaned gorilla, and she's just the most amazing animal I've ever worked with in my life."

Silverback, Jomo, dismantled the cake's top layer while the younger gorillas enjoyed other treats spread throughout the gorilla habitat.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

The zoo has been sharing facts about gorillas on social media in the 50 days leading up to Friday's celebration.

Samantha was raised with another gorilla named Sam. They were born 12 days apart in 1970 and were hand-raised with help from staff at Good Samaritan Hospital, from which both their names were derived. Not much was known about how to rear baby gorillas, and the zoo's former Ape House wasn't conducive to a mother gorilla raising her own young, so the pair spent their first weeks at Good Sam.

The zoo describes Samantha as "a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, matriarch, role model, record setter, and an inspirational ambassador." She's lived with more than 40 other gorillas during her years at the zoo, given birth to six babies, and has descendants across North America. Samantha's parents, "King Tut" and "Penelope," were considered two of Cincinnati's "founder" gorillas.

Born 12 days apart, Sam and Samantha were named after Good Samaritan Hospital where they spent their first weeks receiving care from nurses and doctors.
Credit Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

The Cincinnati Zoo's first gorilla, "Susie," arrived in 1931 from Europe, riding aboard the Graf Zeppelin. She took up residence in what is now the Reptile House and was popular with visitors, as Curator of Primates Ron Evans explains:

"Susie was billed as the world’s only trained gorilla and would sit at tea tables, eat with utensils and pose for photos wearing various outfits. Back in those days, zoos were more about entertainment than education, conservation, science or organized animal welfare. Although not how we interpret or care for gorillas today, Susie was already showing the awesome power gorillas had to command our attention and inspire introspection and caring."

When Samantha was born in 1970, gorillas lived indoors year-round in the Ape House. In 1978 she moved into Gorilla World, the first-ever naturalist outdoor habitat.

Fifty gorillas have been born at the Cincinnati Zoo.

"Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, with fewer than 175,000 individuals," the zoo points out. "Due primarily to habitat destruction caused by logging, mineral mining and agricultural expansion, wild gorilla numbers continue to shrink. The bushmeat trade – the killing of wild animals to be used as human food – is also a major threat to the western lowland gorilla population throughout the Central African rainforests. More than 1,000 gorillas are illegally poached for the bushmeat trade each year."