Snowflake was an important symbol for Barcelona Zoo and the city. The first albino gorilla ever known captivated adults and children from all over the world, and brought millions of visitors and scientists to the zoo. Found in the Nko forest, he was rescued by the primatologist Josep Sabater i Pi, who brought him to Barcelona.
Find out what his life was like in the zoo for the 37 years of his life, what he was like and what his favourite food was.
Name: Snowflake / Copito de Nieve / Floquet de Neu / Nfumu Ngui.
Species: Gorilla gorilla.
Subspecies: Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western Lowland Gorilla).
Peculiarity: he was the first known albino gorilla.
Type of albinism: oculocutaneous (OCA).
Place of birth: Equatorial Guinea.
Approximate year of birth: 1963 or 1964.
Date of arrival in Barcelona: 1st November 1966.
Date of death: 24th November 2003.
Cause of death: skin cancer; squamous cell carcinoma.
Height: 163 cm in adulthood.
Weight: 100 kg. approx.
Number of offspring: 21.
Like all gorillas, Snowflake was a herbivore and his basic diet was fruit and seasonal vegetables. In the zoo, he was given four meals a day comprised of fruit, vegetables, seasonal garden produce and alfalfa. To complete his diet, special food for primates was added to his meals. He was also given protein-rich milkshakes, a boiled egg and dry bread twice a week, soft cheese once a week and yoghurt (which he particularly enjoyed) three times a week. Snowflake also liked nuts very much.
In his later years, Snowflake weighed around 100 kg, though earlier he had suffered from obesity; in 1997 he weighed over 190 kg, and so he was put on a special diet to reduce his weight. Even so, Snowflake, who was 163 cm tall and had an average weight of 145 kg, was never a particularly thick-set male.
- - Circumference of head: 87 cm.
- - Surface area of foot sole: 33 cm.
- - Surface area of paw (from the tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the palm): 23 cm.
On 1st October 1966, several landowners killed a group of gorillas that had been eating their banana and coffee crops in the Nko Forest, in the province of Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea (at that time Spanish Guinea). Among the dead bodies, they found a baby gorilla that was completely white and clinging desperately to its mother's body.
One of the farmer-hunters, Benito Manié, took the animal home with the idea of selling it (he called the animal Nfumu Ngui, which means "white gorilla" in the Fang language). Four days later, he sold it to Professor Jordi Sabater Pi, at that time the curator of the Barcelona City Council Ikunde Zoological Experimentation Centre, for a sum of around 15,000 pesetas.
The albino baby weighed 8.75 kg and had all of its milk teeth, and so was estimated to be between two and three years old.
The white gorilla spent a month in Ikunde undergoing an adaptation process. During this time, Professor Sabater communicated this find to Professor Arthur Riopelle, Director of the Delta Regional Primate Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans (USA). Sabater had collaborated on Riopelle's field studies on gorillas in Rio Muni.
Riopelle promptly informed the National Geographic Society (which sponsored his gorilla studies) of the discovery, and the organisation decided to send Professor Riopelle and Paul A. Zahl (a member of the magazine's editorial staff) to Ikunde to meet the exceptional animal and to produce a photo-report.
The baby gorilla adapted well to life in captivity and being with humans, and was sent to Barcelona Zoo, where he arrived on 1st November 1966. One month later, in December, he was presented to the local press, but he had not yet been given a name.
In March 1967, Riopelle and Zahl published their article on the gorilla in National Geographic Magazine titled "Snowflake, the world’s first white gorilla". The name that Riopelle and Zahl had given the animal stuck, and the gorilla became known as ‘Snowflake’, or Copito de Nieve in Spanish and Floquet de Neu in Catalan. With this article, the gorilla became famous throughout the world.
During his first 11 months in Barcelona, Snowflake lived in the Ensanche apartment of Dr. Román Luera, at that time the zoo's vet. His wife, María Gracia, used to take care of baby chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates, and was known at the zoo as “Mama Gorilla”. At that time, the shortage of installations and lack of knowledge on how to look after baby animals meant that many newborn creatures were "hand-raised" by humans. As he was an orphan, it was decided that the baby albino gorilla needed the attention and affection of an adoptive mother to ensure that he would develop properly, physically and mentally. This special attention that Snowflake received and the popularity he gained from his earliest days had an influence on his personality, and he became a self-confident, dominant animal.
During the time he stayed with the Luera family, Snowflake went on holiday with them to Montseny and Menorca.
When he was little, Snowflake used to play and learn with another male gorilla called Muni, who had arrived at the zoo around the same time as Snowflake, and who died in 1976. However, it was soon decided that Snowflake should share his lodgings with a female called Ndengue, who was always his favourite. The zoo tried to reproduce the conditions of social life that Snowflake had experienced in the wild as part of a group, and after two years of living with Ndengue, the two gorillas paired up with two females and another male. Snowflake emerged as the group’s dominant male.
Snowflake was always the leader of his group, which in later years included Virunga, one of his daughters, Coco, a young female seized from traders, and his granddaughters Nimba, Batanga and Muni.
Snowflake was the first known case of albinism in gorillas. Until his arrival in Barcelona, only three albino primates had been recorded: a male capuchin monkey in Venezuela, a female spider monkey in a zoo in Colombia, and a female rhesus monkey in New Orleans Zoo, though there had been cases of gorillas with patches of white fur of varying sizes, owing to a lack of skin pigmentation. Professor Sabater Pi, for example, had photographs of a gorilla with white arms.
In the wild, in Nko Forest (Equatorial Guinea), Snowflake's chances of survival would have been slim because of his albinism, given that it caused him physical problems (such as poor eyesight, and the fact that his skin was hyper-sensitive to sunshine) that would have hampered everyday tasks like searching for food, or moving through the forest.
Albinism, which comes from the Latin word albus (blanco), is produced by a lack of melanin in the cells that produce pigmentation in the skin and the eyes, and which means that albinos (such as Snowflake) have skin that is pink in colour and very sensitive to the sunshine, blue eyes, and eyesight problems as a result of abnormal development of the retina and of the patterns of the nerves connecting the eye with the brain and rapid eye movements (nystagmus).
Snowflake's albinism is comparable to the type of albinism most common in humans, oculocutaneous albinism (OCA, sub-type 1A), which is caused when the tyrosinase enzyme becomes completely inactive in the cutaneous and ocular tissue, and results in over-sensitivity to the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Albinism is a characteristic of a recessive nature, and so in order to have albino children, the father and the mother both need to be the carriers of at least one gene.
But as Snowflake always mated with non-albino females, the probability of his having albino descendants is low. However, all his children will have inherited a recessive gene from their father.
Snowflake was a healthy animal who never required any serious operations. When he was small, the only illness he suffered from was a few bouts of chickenpox. However, in 1996, the vets detected skin problems; there was a reddening of the skin and ulcers formed on different parts of his body. An exhaustive check-up was carried out (biopsy, ECO cardiology tests, blood tests and dental examination) which diagnosed that he was suffering from erithrodermia caused by the sun. His state of health was good in general, given his advanced age (he was 33 years old, and the average life expectancy of male gorillas in captivity is 40-45).
In January 1999, it was noted that he had lost more than 20% of his body volume, and he was given an urgent check-up, which included full analytical tests, radiology studies of his thorax, ultrasound scans of his kidneys, liver, spleen, prostate and thyroid, a general and rectal palpation and an overall examination. He was diagnosed as not having any specific illness, he was suffering from senile cachexia (progressive and irreversible loss of body mass as a result of ageing). From that point on, extra nutritional complexes were introduced into his diet.
In September 2001, he was given another check-up and surgical treatment for an ulcer on his right breast that measured approximately 3.5 cm in diameter; it was an undifferentiated squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumour associated with a type of skin cancer that usually develops on the outer layers of the epidermis, and often appears in the areas of the body exposed to the sun. He was also given an ophthalmological check-up, and was found to have cataracts.
In May 2002, surgeons removed the carcinoma from his right breast and operated on the cataracts in his right eye (those in his left eye were operated on in 2003). In November, surgeons removed another tumour from his armpit, and realised that the skin cancer was spreading.
It was decided that he should not be subjected to any further operations because it would have been too painful, and because recovery from the wound would have been virtually impossible. He was administered a non-aggressive medication comprised of antibiotics, antidepressants and a non-invasive anti-tumour product designed to maintain Snowflake's quality of life.