photo - small child, curly black hair, red shirt, interacting with gorilla thru glass, in its enclosure with hay,

Louisville Zoo Says Goodbye to World’s Second-Oldest Gorilla (Media Release)

Contact:  Kyle Shepherd
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(O) 502-238-5331 (C) 502-744-5639   

It is with heavy hearts that the Louisville Zoo announces the passing of female western lowland gorilla Helen. Affectionately called the “Grand Dame” of the gorilla world, Helen was much celebrated at 64-years-old. She long impressed Zoo fans with her big personality and longevity. Helen had been on quality of life watch and was in natural age decline for several months. Zoo caregivers made the difficult decision to euthanize Helen today.

At 64 years old, Helen enjoyed remarkably good health for most of her life, with only expected age-related arthritis and some periodontal disease. However, she recently developed increasing instability and tremors. This put her at greater risk of falling which impacted her day-to-day welfare.

A typical median life expectancy for a female zoo gorilla is about 39 years. Helen’s longevity is only matched by Fatou, a gorilla at Zoo Berlin that is 65 years old. The title “Grand Dame” was bestowed on Helen because of her senior status and for her honored role as a mother of three, a grandmother of 17, a great-grandmother of 21, a great-great-grandmother of 8, and finally, a great-great-great-grandmother of one. Two of her progeny, Bengati (great-grandchild) and Kindi (great-great-grandchild) reside at the Louisville Zoo.

“Letting go of a special gorilla like Helen is very hard, but it is often the last, best thing we can do for our animals,” said Louisville Zoo Director Dan Maloney. “Helen’s exceptional longevity is not only a testament to her personal constitution, but also to the outstanding care provided by her keeper team and the animal health care staff over these past 20 years. Helen was one of our most beloved ambassadors. Her fascination with human babies delighted families for decades. I know our friends and members will share in her loss and miss her greatly.”

“Helen was a legend and she deserved the best,” said Louisville Zoo’s Senior Veterinarian Dr. Zoli Gyimesi. “Besides the Zoo’s staff that cared for her daily, she had her own dentist, cardiologist, gynecologist, neurologist, and orthopedist/pain manager. Helen taught us much about gorillas and geriatric gorilla care.”

“Helen inspired us all with her longevity,” added Kristen Lukas, Ph.D. and Chair of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “She touched the lives of many people over the years, including those who cared for her and those who just spent time visiting her at the Zoo. She was an independent spirit as well as being an integral member of her gorilla family, and her legacy lives on.”

Helen came to the Zoo in 2002 from Lincoln Park Zoo. Because she was wild born in West Africa (Cameroon), her birth year was estimated as 1958. The Louisville Zoo recognized Helen’s birthday annually in January to celebrate her being the oldest gorilla in North America and the second oldest gorilla in the world.

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Since 2011, under Mayor Fischer’s administration, the Louisville Zoo celebrated its 50th anniversary, opened nine new exhibits and attractions, and won national awards for Glacier Run and School at the Zoo. Considered Kentucky’s most popular not-for-profit paid attraction, the Zoo welcomed nearly 9 million guests in the last decade. In 2021, the Zoo was voted “Best Place to Take Kids in Summer,” by LEO Weekly, “Best Kid-Friendly Attraction” by Kentucky Living Magazine and Boo at the Zoo presented by Meijer made the Top 10 Halloween Festivals list by thetravel.com. Community Access Memberships, deep-discount days, the Future Healers Got Zoo Buddies partnership and the accessible playground are among prime efforts to make Louisville Zoo even safer, more engaging, and more inclusive. Among the Louisville Zoo’s most successful conservation programs, the black-footed ferret breeding effort produced 1,100 kits and repatriated more than 800 of these most highly endangered, American mammals to the wild.

The Louisville Zoo, a non-profit organization and State Zoo of Kentucky, is dedicated to bettering the bond between people and our planet by providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for visitors, and leadership in scientific research and conservation education. The Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).