After a brief, sudden illness, a beloved gorilla at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo died Wednesday, the zoo announced, eliciting an outpouring of sadness and support from its Facebook community.
Rafiki, 31, had lived at the zoo for the past 10 years and was playful, gentle and highly interactive with guests, the zoo wrote in a press release.
The silverback gorilla was born in 1984 at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in LaProfonde Rue, Jersey in the United Kingdom. He lived at the Saint Louis Zoo before coming to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in 2005.
Zoo veterinary staff examined Rafiki this week after it appeared he wasn't feeling well and found that he had both severe kidney failure and gastrointestinal disease, the zoo said. He died Wednesday afternoon in spite of veterinary care and consultations with gorilla veterinary advisors. His cause of death will not be known until a full necropsy is complete.
"Rafiki was the most amazing silverback gorilla," Dina Bredahl, the zoo's animal care manager, said in a statement. "He took great care of his troop, he was a playful and gentle father, and his sheer size and larger-than-life personality made such an unforgettable impression on all of us."
Rafiki was the son of Jambo, a male gorilla praised for protecting a 5-year-old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Jersey Zoo in England in 1986. To the horror of onlookers, the gorillas moved close to the boy, Levan Merritt, but Jambo put himself between the boy and the rest of his troop and sat looking over him.
Zoo guests often knew Rafiki as "the thinker," the zoo said, because he often posed like the famous statue. Many guests have had "close encounters" with Rafiki, who often would stay just a couple inches beyond the glass.
Just an hour after Rafiki's death was announced on Facebook, the zoo's post had been shared more than 300 times and people left nearly 250 comments expressing their condolences. People wrote that Rafiki was handsome, beautiful, magnificent and grand and that he will be missed.
"In the 10 years that Rafiki was at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, he did a fantastic job in his main role as a species ambassador," the zoo wrote. "He captivated hundreds of thousands of guests, and the Zoo hopes he inspired them to care about his critically endangered wild counterparts."
His fans shared their favorite pictures of him and wrote that they loved watching him protect his young, and that he seemed to be a loving and caring father. Rafiki had three offspring, a 9-year-old son Umande, who lives at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, 8-year-old daughter Tumani and 3-year-old son Dembe, who both live at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
The zoo said in Rafiki's death announcement that it was important that Rafiki's troop could spend time with him after he died, and each gorilla "appeared to grieve for him in their own way."
Contact Kassondra Cloos: 636-0362
Twitter: @Kassondra Cloos