Columbus Zoo Announces Passing of Unga, a Bonobo Whose Story Is Featured in Come From Away

Unga was one of two rare bonobos that were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland.

(© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium)

Ohio's Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has announced the passing of Unga, a 29-year-old bonobo chimpanzee, whose journey to the United States is partially made famous in the Broadway musical Come From Away.

Unga was born on February 22, 1993, at the Wild Animal Park Mechelen Planckendael in Belgium. As she was being transferred to her new home at the Columbus Zoo on September 11, 2001, her plane was suddenly diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, following the terrorist attacks that morning. During the unplanned five-day stop, the people of Gander, including Bonnie Harris, manager of the local animal shelter, cared for Unga, her keeper, and another female bonobo, Kosana, who was being transferred to the Milwaukee County Zoo. As mentioned in the musical, Unga was pregnant at the time, but lost her baby.

On Friday, March 2, 2021, Unga suffered what appeared to be a stroke after she became unable to move her right side. She passed away shortly thereafter, with initial findings pointing to the stroke, along with significant heart disease, leading to her sudden decline. She had been receiving medication and regular monitoring and physical therapy after previously suffering a stroke in January 2015. Male bonobos traditionally live to be around 31.5 years, and there is insufficient data about female life expectancy. One of the rarest great ape species, with only 5,000-50,000 estimated to be living in the equatorial forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the bonobo is listed as endangered, primarily due to habitat destruction through logging and bush meat hunting. The Columbus Zoo is one of only eight facilities in North America that currently house bonobos.

To commemorate the community's kindness to Unga, the Columbus Zoo staff named her first offspring Gander. The baby was delivered in December 2003 and still lives at the Columbus Zoo along with Unger's other children, Jerry and Elema.