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Barcelona Zoo's Rare Albino Gorilla Dying of Skin Cancer

September 21, 2003|Sarah Andrews | Associated Press Writer

BARCELONA, Spain — Snowflake, an extremely rare albino gorilla and the Barcelona Zoo's most popular resident, is dying of skin cancer and has only a few months to live, zoo officials say.

Since veterinarians broke the bad news last weekend, people have been filing by his cage to bid farewell to this Spanish city's beloved mascot -- despite his bad temper.

Snowflake -- Copito de Nieve in Spanish -- has been a symbol for Barcelona since he was captured in Equatorial Guinea in 1966 and brought here.

He was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2001 but the disease has progressed suddenly and is no longer controllable, said the zoo's chief veterinarian, Jesus Fernandez.

"Being albino, he's very sensitive to the sun. Though we've tried our best to protect him, this is an incurable, progressive disease, and it will follow its natural course. We don't know how long he'll live, but probably not more than a few months," he said.

Fernandez said no one knows how many albino gorillas may live in the wild, but they are incredibly rare, and Copito is the only one known to be alive today.

Claire Richardson, president of the Diane Fosse Gorilla Fund International headquarters in Atlanta, and animal keeper Amy Fuller at the Bronx Zoo in New York City said Copito is the only such gorilla to their knowledge.

Copito is thought to be between 38 and 40 years old, the equivalent of 80 human years. A gorilla's average lifespan in the wild is 25 years.

In his 37 years at the Barcelona Zoo, he's fathered 22 offspring with three different females. None is albino.

The gorilla's wrinkly white face is on postcards all over the city. He's a main character in a novel and even has memoirs written in his name.

Copito seems to resent the throngs of onlookers who line up daily outside his glass-walled cage, and last week, he displayed his usual disdain for the crowds, turning his back as cameras flashed.

Still, city officials say such an important part of Barcelona culture shouldn't be forgotten, and plans are underway to name a street after Copito or honor him with a monument.

"When Copito de Nieve is gone, an era of Barcelona will end," zoo spokesman Miguel San Llehy said.

Once he dies, the zoo plans to study his DNA and skeleton before cremating him.

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