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Tragic Triumph of the Ghost Gorilla

Aug 17, 2007
When he was captured in the African country of Equatorial Guinea in 1966 (or '67 depending on the source), he was proclaimed a miracle by the local villagers. But the real miracle was the fact that he managed to live to the ripe old age of 40 (80 in human years).


Snowflake's first encounter with Lady Luck was when he was discovered as an orphaned gorilla by a hunter. Whether the particulars of his discovery are accurate or not, what is not in question is the good fortune that landed him in the hands of a Spanish naturalist for the princely sum of sixty pounds.

Snowflake suffered from a condition known as albinism (individuals with this condition are referred to as albinos) which occurs in individuals who lack the pigment melanin. Albinos typically have very pale skin and are also very sensitive to the sun and light in general.

There are those who may argue that it was misfortune rather than fortune that ultimately landed Snowflake in captivity, but the reality is, an albino gorilla would have next to no chance of surviving in the wild. Not only would Snowflake have had to deal with the daily ravages of ultra-violet rays from the equatorial sun, but due to his color he also would have been a walking food advertisement for natural gorilla predators.

Okay granted, gorillas have few predators other than man, but they do exist, and the one that springs foremost to mind is the leopard. The white color of his hair (gorillas have hair not fur) would have made Snowflake unmistakably easy to spot in the wild by a prowling predator such as a leopard, be it night or day.

Anyway assuming tale of his discovery is accurate, it may suggest that Snowflake was ostracized and ultimately abandoned by his gorilla group, including his mother. And why not! This scenario is not too far fetched; if man is not above discrimination or ostracization of those who are different, even in this present day and age, why should we expect radically different behavior from gorillas who also happen to be


Barcelona city embraced Snowflake as one of their own, or more accurately, they simply adored him! Known as Copito de nieve in Spanish, Snowflake soon enough became the City Mascot and the overwhelming crowd-puller at Barcelona Zoo. The young white gorilla was featured on postcards, stamps and posters and was responsible for drawing millions of tourists to the zoo.

But how did all that new found fame affect Snowflake? Well, in his 37 years at the zoo, Snowflake fathered 22 offspring (grandkids included) from three females, gawking tourists notwithstanding. Much has been made of his scowling demeanor and apparent irascible temperament, but as mentioned before albinos suffer from extreme sensitivity to light and thus characteristically squint...which on the face of a gorilla may seem like scowling.

Also it should come as no surprise that Snowflake was not much inclined to gambol and frolic in the sun for the zoo visitors' entertainment...his condition largely precluded such tendencies.

And so what if Snowflake wasn't always amenable to playing the game of be-nice-for-the tourists. Would you? Just imagine how you would feel if you were subjected to constant scrutiny, day-in-day-out, by rude, bad mannered hairless apes (people).

Having said that though, Snowflake's situation could have been much worse; if he had stayed in the wild it is highly unlikely that he would have survived for long. Also, by the time Snowflake was introduced to Barcelona Zoo, many of the misconceptions about gorilla lifestyles had since been resolved.

It was due to such prevailing ignorance with respect to gorillas that not long before gorillas in zoos were fed on a diet of meat and kept in solitary cells. For a gregarious, vegetarian species, such conditions had to be sheer torture!


Like any well known celebrity, Snowflake's death in late 2003 caused a minor ripple on the Richter scale, and by the time the dust finally settled what remained was a city one-in-mourning yet strangely divided. (Snowflake was put to sleep because the symptoms of the malignant melanoma (cancer) which was diagnosed in 2001 were becoming increasingly painful...besides he was pretty old for a gorilla)

There're many who claimed and felt that the zoo authorities had unashamedly exploited the ailing gorilla to the point of undue cruelty. The zoo authorities countered that they were merely giving the citizens of Barcelona the chance to bid a final farewell to the most famous of their eminent sons. But like a hit movie oozing with sequel potential the good folks at the zoo left nothing to chance.

Although none of Snowflake's offspring turned out as albinos the authorities were indeed hoping to breed a dominant variant of the gene (another albino gorilla) from the offspring gene-pool. It is not unreasonable to speculate that they were hoping to recapture Snowflake's superstar appeal with a next-gen Ghost Gorilla.
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