LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Louisville Zoo has lost a renowned gentle giant. “It is with heavy hearts that the Louisville Zoo announces the passing of female western lowland gorilla Helen,” the zoo shared in a news release on Friday. 

What You Need To Know

  • Helen, known as the "Grand Dame" was 64 years old

  • She was wild born in West Africa, and her birth year was estimated at 1958

  • Helen had been on quality of life watch for some time and zoo caregivers made the difficult decision to euthanize her on Friday

  • A typical median life expectancy for a female zoo gorilla is about 39 years

Affectionately called the “Grand Dame” of the gorilla world, Helen was 64 years old, making her the world’s second oldest gorilla. She long impressed fans with her big personality and longevity. Helen had been on quality of life watch and was in natural age decline for several months. Zoo caregivers made the difficult decision to euthanize Helen Friday.

Helen enjoyed good health for most of her life, with only expected age-related arthritis and some periodontal disease. Recently, though, she had been struggling with increasing instability and tremors.

“Letting go of a special gorilla like Helen is very hard, but it is often the last, best thing we can do for our animals,” said Louisville Zoo Director Dan Maloney. “Helen’s exceptional longevity is not only a testament to her personal constitution but also to the outstanding care provided by her keeper team and the animal health care staff over these past 20 years.”

“Helen was one of our most beloved ambassadors,” Maloney added. He described how the gorilla’s fascination with human babies delighted families for decades.

“Helen was a legend, and she deserved the best,” said Louisville Zoo’s Senior Veterinarian Dr. Zoli Gyimesi. “Helen taught us much about gorillas and geriatric gorilla care.”

A typical median life expectancy for a female zoo gorilla is about 39 years. Helen’s longevity is only matched by Fatou, a gorilla at the Zoo Berlin that is 65 years old. The title “Grand Dame” was bestowed on Helen because of her senior status and for her role as a mother of three, a grandmother of 17, a great-grandmother of 21, a great-great-grandmother of 8 and, finally, a great-great-great-grandmother of one. Two of her progeny, Bengati (great-grandchild) and Kindi (great-great-grandchild) reside at the Louisville Zoo.

Helen came to the Zoo in 2002 from Lincoln Park Zoo. Because she was born in the wild in West Africa, her birth year was estimated as 1957. The Louisville Zoo celebrated her birthday every year in January, recognizing her as the oldest gorilla in North American and the second oldest gorilla in the world.