It is unclear who was the first gorilla to be kept in captivity. It is known that some zoos kept gorillas in the 1880ies during very short periods of time, as sometimes animals died during transports or after just a few months, weeks or even days. The first gorilla that was brought to Europe was captured by a German expedition in 1876 for the Berlin Zoo. It was a two years old male called Mpungu, and after being lended to London and Hamburg, he died in November 1877.
In 1931, San Diego Zoo captured the first registered Eastern Lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri). He was called N'gagi and he lived till January 1944. In the same year, 1931, the first mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) was captured for the Washington National Zoo, but he lived only for a year.
On December 22nd 1956, a baby gorilla named Colo entered the world at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, becoming the first-ever gorilla born in captivity. Weighing approximately 4 pounds, Colo (right), a Western Lowland gorilla whose name is a combination of Columbus and Ohio, was hand reared. She is the daughter of Millie and Baron Macombo, two gorillas captured in French Cameroon, Africa, that were brought to the Columbus Zoo on January 15th 1951. Before Colo’s birth, all gorillas found at zoos were caught in the wild, often by brutal means. In order to capture a gorilla when it was young and therefore still small enough to handle, hunters frequently had to kill the gorilla’s parents and other family members.
Back then, gorillas were kept alone in typical cages of 3 x 3 meters with concrete and bars (left), the usual standard in zoos at that time. As there was no enrichment for animals, they were very bored, depressed and stressed, which made it very difficult to breed them in controlled environments. In the past, gorillas were even kept and used in circus shows. Some gorillas still alive today such as Baki (Lisbon), Gugas (Belfast) or Rivi (Fasano) lived in circuses for many years till they were too big and too hard to handle, so they were moved to zoos.
Today, most zoos have adopted a different concept of keeping animals. While some of them still stick to the old-fashioned, outdated policy, many others have changed their minds and are "using" captive gorillas as a way to educate people and to transmit to all visitors the message about the importance of preserving our environment, our habitats, and their inhabitants. The old gorilla enclosures are now replaced by bigger, open spaces without visible barriers where gorillas can enjoy a better natural environment with a lot of enrichment. Enclosures are provided with tree trunks and other toys such as artificial termite mounds, ropes or balls to keep the animals entertained.
In order to avoid capturing new animals in the wild to be brought to zoos, there are now a lot of conservation projects and much more strict CITES rules that ban importing wild-caught gorillas in most countries. Those conservation projects include, for example, the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), which is the most intensive programme of population management for a species kept in EAZA zoos. It has a coordinator who, together with the Gorilla Committee, gives recommendations each year on which animals should or should not breed, which individuals should be moved to other zoos, etc. This way animal parks are getting more educational.
"In the end, we only preserve what we love, we only love what we understand, and we only understand what we are taught" — Baba Diom (African naturalist)