Quito: A Zoo's Silver Lining

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Photo Courtesy of Danielle D'Amato

Regal and contemplative, Quito the Silverback gorilla delighted visitors at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for over a decade before his unexpected death. Although saddened by the loss of this zoo icon, Jacksonville University faculty and students fondly recall how he awakened their curiosity and touched their hearts.

Quito, the zoo’s largest Silverback gorilla, was found dead in his enclosure on Sunday, Jan. 27. A zoo press release stated that cardiac failure was likely the cause of his death, as Quito had a family history of heart problems and had been taking heart medications for the past three years.

The 31-year-old gorilla arrived at Jacksonville Zoo in 1998 as part of the zoo’s first gorilla troupe. When Quito became the alpha male of the troupe, his back turned silver as a sign of his dominance, said Danielle D’Amato, a senior and biology major at Jacksonville University.

Over the summer, D’Amato completed an independent study on the zoo’s lemurs, but she couldn’t help but feel drawn to Quito, often sitting by his exhibit during her lunch breaks. Like the zookeepers, she noticed that the gentle giant favored children. Happily for her, he also liked blonde women.

“He always came up to me and messed with me, let me know he was paying attention,” said D’Amato. “Gorillas connect eyes really quickly and look away. He would do that with kids, especially little little kids. I’d tell a parent, ‘Crouch down and he’ll come over.’”

Natasha Vanderhoff, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and marine science at JU, said she sympathized with the zoo’s sudden loss.

“I know they’re heartbroken at the zoo,” she said.

As part of the Gorilla Behavior Observation Team, JU graduate student Lindsay Grezel devotes two afternoons each week to studying the gorillas’ activities. She said she learned of the “terrible news” before the zoo’s official press release went out.

“Although I didn’t know him for very long, I still feel affected by it, and his absence is definitely noticed by staff, guests, and the female gorillas in his exhibit,” Grezel said. “Throughout the week, as people learned about Quito’s death, the reaction was similar. People were very surprised and sad. While I was at the zoo, people who had not heard the news would ask about Quito because they were very excited to see him and were heartbroken to hear of his passing. Others who knew began leaving memorials in the exhibit windows and asking questions about how it happened and how the other gorillas were handling it.”

D’Amato began circulating sympathy cards in her classes, citing several good reasons to do so.

“I want the zookeepers to know that other people care because it’s almost like a death in the family,” she said. “I feel it would be good for JU to show support. I think it will help when other students want to come over and [volunteer].”

Saturday, Feb. 2, the zoo memorialized Quito by donating $5 from every admission ticket to the Quito Memorial Fund for Primate Research. As guests left notes, flowers and pictures on the gorilla exhibit, Tracey Fenn, supervisor of zoo animals, spoke in quiet tones about the gorilla’s lasting impact.

“Quito was a great ambassador for his kind, not only for gorillas, but other apes,” Fenn told a News4Jax reporter. “He inspired people to care about conservation and wildlife.”

Quito’s heart condition was not unique, according to JU associate professor of biology Rose Borkowski, Ph.D., whose work as a multiple species veterinarian has sometimes included emergency coverage for Jacksonville Zoo animals.

“Unfortunately, gorillas do have a fair amount of problems with cardiac disease,” said Borkowski, citing Zoo Atlanta’s Great Ape Heart Project as one attempt by scientists to better understand and address primate cardiac disease. Although her professional contact with Quito was “minimal,” Borkowski said that the gorilla’s death affected her emotionally.

“I felt sad about it just because I’ve been by there and seen Quito,” she said. “He was this big, gorgeous animal and a really amazing species, and it’s sad when one of them passes away. It makes an impact on you when you go back to their exhibit the next day and they’re not there.”

Borkowski has helped numerous students to secure internships and research opportunities at the zoo. One of those students, Diana Diaz, observed the great apes as part of a general internship last summer.

“I mainly watched Lash, the other male gorilla, but the little that I did watch Quito I thoroughly enjoyed,” said Diaz, a senior studying pre-veterinary biology. “He would sit and just watch me watch him and sometimes he’d come closer and just look for food on the ground. He was a big gorilla but very sweet.”

In addition to signing sympathy cards in her classes, Diaz prepared a card from her sorority.

“When I heard the news from another student I was very saddened,” she said. “It was hard to believe he had passed away.”

Although the well-known gorilla is no longer a part of Jacksonville Zoo, Quito leaves behind a legacy of fascination and education not lost on the JU community.

“He was a beloved animal and quite popular among staff and guests alike,” said Grezel. “It was just amazing to watch as he moved with such grace and power.”

“This next summer, I was hoping to work with him,” D’Amato said. “Gorillas weren’t really my thing, but he had such a personality. He was awesome. I’ll miss him personally.”

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