In 1971, just before joining the U.S. Coast Guard, I made a two-month tour of western Europe. One of my stops was at the Barcelona Zoo where I observed the zoo’s most famous resident, Snowflake the albino gorilla. The whole experience of observing the gorilla was a little disconcerting. He had a particularly expressive face. The zoo experience reminded me of how much the great apes are like us.
In retrospect, my whole Barcelona Zoo experience was a downer. First, I hate zoos and rarely visit them. Second, to turn Snowflake into a circus sideshow, was indeed unfortunate. He deserved more respect.
Snowflake was a male western lowland gorilla. He was born in the wild and captured in 1966 by villagers in Equatorial Guinea:
He was captured by [a local farmer] who had killed the rest of his group (all charcoal black in color) in order to obtain this unusual albino specimen. During the massacre, his mother was shot. The small creature was found clinging to his mother’s neck, his head buried deep in her black fur. [After several days, the young gorilla] was by purchased by a man who worked for the Barcelona Zoo’s Ikunde Center, in Spanish Guinea.
The young albino gorilla was eventually transported to the Barcelona Zoo where he resided for the next 38 years. As the only know white gorilla in the world, Snowflake was a zoo celebrity until his death of skin cancer in 2003.
In an attempt to explain Snowflake’s color-free complexion, Spanish researchers sequenced the gorilla’s entire genome. Next, researchers combed through his genome looking for stretches of DNA that were identical due to inbreeding. They found that 12 percent of the genes from Snowflake’s mother and father matched, a number indicative of an uncle mating with his niece.
There have been no other reports of western lowland gorilla inbreeding. But wildlife experts are concerned that with habitat loss, gorillas may struggle to find a place to move away from their original family. According researcher Tomas Marques-Bonet:
If we are reducing much more the space that they have now, it is more likely that they will be forced to stay in the group and that will increase the consanguinity, [or shared blood].