Meet Ozoum (Ozzie)
Ozzie, whose given name was Ozoum, was the last surviving member of the founding group of gorillas who made up the origin of Zoo Atlanta’s gorilla program. Ozzie and his peers arrived in the 1980s, at the time of the landmark Ford African Rain Forest. At the time of the arrival of these groups of gorillas, Willie B. was the only gorilla at Zoo Atlanta.
Ozzie was known for making new care team members earn his trust. He had a history of being a “grumpy old man” and for most of his life was considered a “gorilla’s gorilla” who didn’t really form close bonds with any of his care team. That changed as he got older, and finally in his late 40s, he began to show more affinity to his caregivers and would often engage in playful games rather like “tag” (on the other side of a barrier, of course). Once his trust was earned through time, games, or even buttering him up with special treats, Ozzie greeted keepers with a happy grumble, every morning – something that will be truly missed by those who cared for him.
Ozzie was the first ape in the world to participate in a voluntary blood pressure reading as part of the Zoo Atlanta husbandry training program in which, through positive reinforcement, animals would participate in their own health care. Along with the help of the Great Ape Heart Project, originally headquartered at Zoo Atlanta and now based at the Detroit Zoo, Ozzie’s contributions to the project will continue to aid gorillas and care experts for generations.
As Ozzie and the other geriatric gorillas began to experience age-related health issues such as arthritis, this encouraged his care team to think of new ideas for accommodating their changing mobility. This took the shape of adding more ramps, small steps, and lower sleeping areas so that aging individuals would still have the same great quality of life and great care that all animals at Zoo Atlanta receive. Because of Ozzie and the other geriatric gorillas, Zoo Atlanta has been able to learn so much about how to care for other aging individuals and are able to share that knowledge with other facilities. At the time of his passing, Ozzie was the oldest male western lowland gorilla ever on record at 61 years old! This longevity is a testament to the care provided by the team at Zoo Atlanta.
Ozzie loved to put blankets on his head, enjoyed taking apart enrichment that his caregivers were sure was “gorilla proof,” and went for his cabbage and onions first when it was time to eat. Ozzie was fortunate enough to live with several females over the years and sired 12 offspring. At the time of his death, he left behind 13 grandchildren and eight grand-children, several of whom still live at Zoo Atlanta; these include great-grandson Floyd. Additionally, there are descendants of Ozzie living at other AZA-accredited zoos in North America.
Ozzie was a gift, a challenge but also a teacher, the best way to start your day and to sign off for the night. While we still cannot believe he is gone, he will forever have a lasting legacy, not only in the future generations of gorillas he is related to, but in the hearts and memories of anyone who met him.