Gladys Porter Zoo says beloved gorilla Penney has died

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Working with living creatures can be very rewarding, but also deeply saddening at times. Our staff care deeply for all of the animals at the Zoo, and we consider them part of our extended families.

The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, a Western lowland gorilla, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)

The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, a Western lowland gorilla, who died on May 19. 

Penney’s cause of death is suspected of cardio-respiratory failure, the release stated. She would’ve been 37 years old this year. 

Western lowland gorillas are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Born on Nov. 8, 1986 at the zoo, Penney was the offspring of Lamydoc and Katanga. Her mother had no interest in caring for her own babies, which as a result led to Penney being hand-reared by the staff, the release stated. 

During her adult life, Penney gave birth to two healthy offspring: Samantha, who was born in 2006 and lives at the Albuquerque Zoo, and Sally, who is the youngest of the zoo’s gorilla troop. 

Before she gave birth to Samantha, Penney was evaluated for infertility issues because she should’ve been in the prime of her reproductive years in 2005, officials said. It was discovered that Penney had a mass on her pituitary gland, which led to an eight-month-long treatment with a drug to reduce her production of hormone prolactin. 

Afterwards, a MRI revealed that the size of the mass on her pituitary had decreased. Then, six months after treatment was finished, Penney was pregnant. 

Following Samantha’s birth in 2006, Penney didn’t produce any other offspring until August 2020, when she gave birth to Sally, her youngest offspring.

“Penney was a devoted mother who took great care in raising and protecting her young,” the release stated. “Once Sally was old enough to start exploring, Penney kept a close eye on her, making sure she did not wander too far, sometimes shielding her from the other young, rambunctious gorillas in the troop.

“She was beloved by staff, especially those who took care of her on a daily basis. She had an attitude. She was easily recognized by her surly facial expressions.”

Penney and her child Sally are seen in this undated photo. The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)
Penney and her child Sally are seen in this undated photo. The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)

Despite having a good appetite, keepers recently noted that Penney was looking less robust than normal, which led to plans to anesthetize her for a full diagnostic evaluation this week, the release stated. 

On May 18, however, the decision was made to expedite her workup after Penney seemed unsteady. Penney was anesthetized in the morning, had blood drawn, an EKG conducted, X-rays taken and urine and stool samples were collected. Yet, the evaluation in-house of the samples failed to raise any red flags, the release stated.

Dr. Wendy James Aldridge, the zoo’s curator of research, Deborah Carboni and other staff members kept watch over Penney through the night following her workup. 

The release stated that Penney had adjusted her position several times and looked as though she was sleeping peacefully. 

However, at daylight, Penney didn’t rouse and died shortly thereafter, officials said. 

A necropsy determined that Penney had fluid around her heart, with her left ventricle firm and constricted. Additionally, officials noted there seemed to be a loss of structural detail in her left kidney. 

Officials determined she possibly died from cardio-respiratory failure and secondary renal failure. The release stated that tissue samples have been sent out for a complete histopathology to get a full picture of what caused the rapid decline in Penney’s health. 

The release also stated that as recently as June 2022, all of the zoo’s adult gorillas were thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian with the Great Ape Heart Project. Findings on her urinary tract and cardiac status at that time did not indicate any issues other than age-related changes. 

“Working with living creatures can be very rewarding, but also deeply saddening at times,” Dr. Pat Burchfield, the zoo’s executive director, said in the release. “Our staff care deeply for all of the animals at the Zoo, and we consider them part of our extended families.”


Brownsville Herald photojournalist Denise Cathey had the opportunity to photograph Penney after the birth of her child Sally in 2020. Read her tribute to Penney here: 

Remembering Penney and her miracle baby

Penney and her child Sally are seen in this undated photo. The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)
Penney and her child Sally are seen in this undated photo. The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)
The Gladys Porter Zoo staff announced Wednesday the death of Penney, a Western lowland gorilla, who died on May 19. (Courtesy photo)