Friday, January 10, 2014

European zoos castrating male gorillas for easier management

What do you do with a male gorilla who is challenging the silverback in a zoo’s gorilla group? Do you do move him out to a “bachelor group” of all males, as we do in North America? Or do you castrate him, as is happening in European zoos? The answer, at first, seems clear: don’t castrate! Let the males develop into beautiful silverbacks! It tears at the heart.

To be fair, let’s look at the European position. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria’s European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) is an intensive type of population management for a species kept in EAZA zoos. The gorilla EEP supports castration as a way to handle what are known as “surplus males,” the guys who can’t be kept in their maternal group because of the dynamics with the silverback.

“Hopefully these castrates can stay in their maternal group during their lives without big problems, or create fewer problems when growing up in a bachelor group,” is how Tom de Jongh explained it in the August 2010 EAZA publication Zooquaria.

The National Zoo moved Kojo and his brother into
their own "bachelor group" when tensions rose
between them and the silverback Baraka.
Baby sis Kibibi pictured here.
In North America, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Program (SSP) for gorillas does not condone castration as a management strategy. Instead, the SSP does tremendous work on strategies to create bachelor groups where the surplus males are put together – without a female to cause problems.

The SSP has had a great deal of success with this strategy, especially when following some specific guidelines regarding age of introductions and flexibility in management. AZA zoos manage 27 all-male groups and a recent a paper on the behavior of males in different gorilla SSP social groups (Stoinski, et al., 2013) shows that with proper management, all-male groups are a stable long-term strategy for housing males in zoos.

So why don’t the Europeans try the bachelor groups? They do. Over the last 20 years or so, they have established 19 bachelor groups. But they are evidently having trouble establishing more. “As we all know, good zoos willing to keep gorillas as they should do not grow on trees,” one British zoo official admitted in an email message.

I know that zoo people do not start out their day thinking, “I’ll think I’ll maim a perfectly healthy gorilla today.” I know they deal with tremendous problems, and sometimes there seems to be no good answers. If a gorilla is sent to a bachelor group, there is a risk that he may spend his life watching his back for attacks from the others. The cardiac stress and hypertension caused by the continual elevated cortisol levels under stress can be a very real concern. If he can’t fit in, he may end up as one more of those solitary gorillas living without any companionship whatsoever. If castration provides social stability and inner calm for the male who has nowhere else to live, and he can play with babies and be in a large group for a long time… then maybe the Europeans are right to consider the options.

If, if, if.. And yet…

We know castrations, especially those done at earlier ages, can cause behavioral deficiencies in apes, as an American ape expert explained to me. And the assumption that a castrate’s life may be longer and stress free is just a hypothesis without real data, unproven, since this would require hormone assays and cardiac monitoring over time. From a scientific perspective, we need facts about how well castration works to reduce aggression in gorilla families and bachelor groups. Unfortunately, getting those assays, monitoring, and behavioral data requires the castration of male gorillas.

The European zoos have put themselves into a Catch-22. Does castration hurt or help gorillas in the long run? They have to castrate the gorillas to find out. And the Europeans are castrating them without knowing if it helps or hurts the gorillas.

Ultimately then, it seems to come down to a question of values. I asked one former zookeeper what her thoughts were. “I am opposed to castrating any great ape unless his health is in danger,” she told me. “I dislike the concept for apes, their bodies are sacred, and as much as I can honor that, I will.”

On the Facebook page for Gorilla Haven - Gorilla Fans, Jane Dewar has posted the names of the ten males who have been castrated by European zoos thus far.

Kukuma #2089 - Belfast
Loango #1818 - Apenheul
D'jomo #1986 - Vallee des Singes
Zungu #1704 - Basel
Mosi #2040 - Gaiapark
Bembosi #2081 - Amsterdam
Shambe #2082 - Amsterdam
Mapenzi #2046 - Beauval
Mbula #2024 - Chessington
Mwana #2108 - Chessington

The EEP has recommended even more castrations – while their zoos continue to breed more gorillas. More male babies destined for the surgical knife in Europe, if the castration strategy remains in effect.

It would be nice to know, definitively, whether gorillas live longer lives with or without castration. It would be fantastic to know if they are happier. But we’ve been fighting against the use of chimpanzees in invasive research here in the States, so it’s not surprising that many American ape lovers rebel against the idea of castrating gorillas for research. The Europeans, though, would be the first to remind us that they aren’t castrating the gorillas for research. They are using a medical procedure to make it easier to control their populations. 

To me, castration is wrong. It is lazy. If the European zoos can’t manage their apes, they should: 1) stop making more of them; and 2) let us know which are the evidently dwindling “good zoos willing to keep gorillas.” Those are the zoos that the public should support. We already have the names of the zoos (see list above) that don’t deserve the support of people who respect apes for who they are… and for who they can – and should – become.  

Friday, December 27, 2013

My choices for Person of the Year – and Ass of the Year

At the beginning of 2013, NIH Director Francis Collins was the ugly face of government-funded research using chimpanzees. Leonardo DiCaprio was the handsome face of star power used to advance public opinion for animal welfare. By the end of year, Collins and DiCaprio were unmasked, revealed by the individual decisions they made. It turns out that Dr. Collins is the protector, Leo the exploiter.

For decades, chimpanzee advocates ran into a brick wall at the National Institutes of Health, as they tried to end the useless and destructive research on chimps. No one listened, until Collins. In a stunning series of decisions that has ended research for most of the federally-supported chimps, this man has turned our image of government indifference upside down. His support for transferring the use of federal dollars from research labs to the sanctuary system has done more than we had a right to hope to advance the quality of life for these chimps.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has single-handedly given the implicit “green light” to lesser actors who know that appearing with a baby chimpanzee increases the delight of an audience that is ignorant to the exploitation by chimp trainer Pam Rosaire (and a dwindling number of other trainers). By his conscious decision to be filmed with chimpanzee Chance in Wolf of Wall Street – even though his character’s true story never involved a chimp – he has used his star power to set back the progress we were making in convincing Hollywood to stop their decades-long exploitation of chimps.

Several animal welfare organizations and ape protection groups have correctly called for a boycott of Wolf of Wall Street. We need to go further. We should boycott Leo DiCaprio, the man who had nothing to lose by standing up against the use of the chimps in entertainment but decided, instead, to join the ranks of the exploiters.

People are not happy with government. We are enraged by the dysfunction of Congress, the failure of government to hold Wall Street and big banks accountable, the “1984”-ishness of an intelligence complex run amok… While we fight against the faceless government institutions that degrade humanity, however, we must recognize the federal employees whose decisions lift us up. We need to recognize Dr. Francis Collins, the man who ended exploitation for most of the federally-supported research chimpanzees. 

Dr. Collins is my Person of the Year. Leo is an ass.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chimp advocates gave us much to be thankful for this year

I'm thankful that the U.S. is closer to
the day when humans won't put chimps in
clothes to "entertain" us, as the Detroit Zoo
did. (1950 picture of  Joe Mendi II.)
2013 turned out to be a very good year for captive chimpanzees in the United States. Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and I was thinking about all that I am thankful for…

…Congress passed, and the President signed, legislation that would lift the arbitrary cap on funding to pay for sanctuary care for the retired federal research chimpanzees. This would not have happened without the strong, united voice of a multitude of animal welfare organizations, led by the Humane Society. We all need to watch and support Chimp Haven as it builds new facilities and forms partnerships to provide lifelong and loving care for these chimps.

…Major chimpanzee exploiter Mike Casey – who allegedly used abusive techniques to train his chimpanzees for private parties and store openings, etc. --was finally forced out of business by a conglomeration of forces: a string of local government decisions to not grant him a permit to keep his chimps in residential neighborhoods; lack of business, as a result of a growing public awareness of the abuse chimpanzees are subject to when they are forced into a life of entertainment; and PETA’s constant vigilance and challenges to Casey’s every step.

…Sanctuaries continue to rescue chimpanzees. This year, chimps were saved from unacceptable care, a lonely life without sunshine in a human home, and an unsustainable research program.  The substandard Las Vegas Zoo closed after staff walked out, and solitary chimpanzee Terry was given a new life at Save the Chimps. After living her entire life in a 4x4 indoor cage, Katie was given a new life – with her sisters and brothers, who she never knew! – at the Center for Great Apes. And Canada’s Fauna Foundation was able to provide a new home for Tatu and Loulis after Central Washington University withdrew its financial support for the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, forcing an end to one of the last ape language projects.

All this, and more, made for a terrific 2013. One more action could really cap off the year: a proper U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision on the endangered status of captive chimpanzees. So many more chimpanzees would be saved from research, entertainment, and “pet” breeding if FWS decides to revoke its double standard of “endangered,” which is granted to chimpanzees in the wild but not to chimps in U.S. captivity.

Animal welfare organizations, sanctuaries, and many zoos will continue to fight the good fight for captive U.S. chimps. I thank you all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Has help arrived for Koko and Ndume?

This week’s news from The Gorilla Foundation – home of Koko and Ndume – is raising some cautious hope that the years of gorilla (non)care dictated by phone psychics may be nearing an end. TGF has quietly brought Ken Gold on board, to manage the “research” and gorilla care. They are still looking for an executive director, who would seem to have more power to implement needed changes, but I believe Gold’s hire is a promising development.
A gorilla expert is now at TGF to manage Koko's care.
Gold has a good resume, with stints at Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands, Singapore Zoo, and Night Safari. His strong suit is his academic work, which is impressive. His recent work as an inspector with the American Humane Association (the group that gives Hollywood cover when they use animal entertainers in movies) is troubling, but people who know Ken tell me he took the AHA job because he knew the needs of primates and would be better able to protect the monkeys and chimps than some of the other AHA inspectors on movie sets. With that mindset, he must be joining The Gorilla Foundation to make a difference, since it wouldn’t appear to be a wise career move if he is looking to advance in the primate research community, and it certainly isn’t something one would want to feature on a resume… unless he can make TGF respectable.

According to their bios, TGF’s Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn (president and vice president, respectively), are both around 66 years old, around the age when thoughts turn to retirement and rehabilitating reputations. Koko is 42 and Ndume is 32. While captive gorillas have been known to live to 55 years old, gorillas in the wild generally live from 30 to 40 years. Time is running out, and times have changed anyway. To leave a respectable legacy, Penny and Ron need professional help – and that could be Ken, who is one of the most qualified pros they’ve hired.

But will they listen and use his expertise? I hope Ken can institute better care for Koko and Ndume. I hope Penny and Ron are thinking rationally about the future and planning for a graceful end to TGF. And I hope they can set an example for their bonobo cousins in Iowa…

As I reported on November 3, the circus continues at Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Research Sanctuary / Great Ape Trust / Insert Latest Name Here. I’ve noticed that Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been absent from the public eye since late last spring, but the board is still flailing around, searching for a raison d'ĂȘtre. One could argue that their most important reason for existence is to provide proper care for their bonobos, but they have failed to bring in a great ape professional or even to consult with bonobo experts. Their carnivals are flops, their artist colony and robobonobo were fantasies, and no self-respecting university will touch them. They need to get a clue from a rehabilitated TGF.

We still don’t know if things will actually improve at the Gorilla Foundation. Gold has a good enough resume on paper to make Penny look good, and most everyone I talked with thinks he’s a good guy, but – I can’t stress this enough – there are some questions about whether he has enough hands-on experience to challenge what Penny is doing (or not doing). Can Ken Gold make a difference?

Fingers are crossed. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The circus continues at Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary

If the latest announcements coming from Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary are any indication, they are attempting YET ANOTHER “turnaround.” An excellent article by Joe Gardyasz, of the Business Record, gives the details of a reorganization that many of us were wondering about.

Great Ape Trust has now been restructured into two boards: “an international board that oversees its bonobo research programs through an organization called Bonobo Hope, as well as a new local IPLS board of directors to oversee the Des Moines facility.” Gardyasz doesn’t list the members of the Bonobo Hope board, and of course the Bonobo Hope/IPLS website doesn’t list them either -- although its banner does advertise $10 tickets to “Kanzi’s Carnival”! (Really, they are promoting themselves as a circus. And they wonder why no one takes them seriously...)

The article does list five members of the IPLS board but, unfortunately, none of the directors charged with overseeing a great ape facility have a professional background in great ape care.

Nor have the board or the new director evidently availed themselves of any expert opinions on what it will take to actually make this a sanctuary. Or a research facility. Or a roadside zoo. Or an artists' colony. Or a new home for retired research chimps. Or whatever the hell they are thinking they want to be THIS TIME. See, that’s the problem. As they have for the past several years, they are tossing ideas out there, without any vision, to see what sticks, to see if anything attracts $$$.

Their new director, Steve Boers, tells Gardyasz that they are existing paycheck-to-paycheck “like most nonprofits.” Actually, no, Mr. Boers. Most non-profit primate sanctuaries are not that unstable. They have thousands of supporters, five-year plans, ten-year plans, legacy plans, consistent fundraising, and experienced people on their boards of directors. Sure, they all need more money, but they live up to the fiduciary responsibilities required of accredited sanctuaries. Unlike this organization.

So, how is GATI planning to pull itself out of their financial ruin? Granted, their ideas are many steps above their earlier ridiculous initiative to develop a robo-bonobo, but they are scary nonetheless.

Scariest of all is their “plan” to bring chimpanzees into their failed program. Reportedly, their new board president is a former Obama campaign worker, and he “is working with [U.S. Senator] Tom Harkin’s office on legislation that would enable the sanctuary to house about 20 of the more than 300 government research chimpanzees that are being retired,” according to the article. This is not a new idea. Last spring they attempted to get 500 signatures on a petition asking former sugar daddy Ted Townsend to “support the efforts of IPLS to become a Federal Sanctuary for chimpanzees who have served as subjects in biomedical research.” (As of today, the petition has 370 signatures.) Last spring, when I asked the National Institutes of Health about the frightening possibility of sending retired chimps to IPLS, NIH press officer Renate Myles assured me “any new sanctuary addition to the Federal Sanctuary System would have to meet very high standards, be approved by the Chimp Haven Board, and would be funded through a subcontract from Chimp Haven (all of this is outlined in the CHIMP Act).” Fat chance of that happening, since they aren’t even an accredited sanctuary; thus, their attempt with Senator Harkin to lower the federal standards so they can get chimpanzees and, not incidentally, the federal dollars that would come with the chimps.

Other ideas that the facility shared with the reporter:
  • Partner with either Iowa State University or the University of Iowa to own the sanctuary.
  • Meet with Iowa conservation officials to “offer the facilities to the state to own,” Gardyasz writes. I’m not sure if this means selling it to Iowa, or donating it.
  • Look for corporate donors who “could understand and take the science to the next level like it needs to be,” Boers says. (At the same time, according to past board president Ken Schweller, who is now on Bonobo Hope's “international scientific board,” the board has put a moratorium on active research. Indeed, they no longer have the certification they need to receive federal funding for research, and one wonders what kind of science corporations would sponsor.)
  • Partner with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, to be a tourist destination.
  • Coordinate with the Science Center of Iowa’s current National Geographic world explorers exhibit to evidently showcase their non-existent “science.”
  • Host corporate events at the facility.
So sad. So many ideas and no vision.

Perhaps the most important part of the article is a Q&A that the Business Record posed to Gay Emerson Reinartz, who leads the AZA Species Survival Plan for bonobos. Please read the article to get the full extent of Gay’s comments. Her response to the question about options for placing the bonobos in a zoo stands out:
“If the center has insufficient long-term financing, what are the alternatives? Should the facility have to close, the Species Survival Plan would attempt to work with IPLS, their staff and others to find a solution that would be in the best, long-term interest of the bonobos. However, this involves a much deeper analyses of space and group dynamics. Without knowing the personalities and social needs of the bonobos in Iowa, it will require time to assess the best placement of individuals/groups. To answer these questions requires open dialogue, analysis, and collaboration. 

Unfortunately for the bonobos involved, GATI/Bonobo Hope/IPLS continues to show a disappointing preference for operating as a circus. One can only (and eternally) hope that someday they will decide that the preferred options are those they have so far scorned: the dialogue, analysis, and collaboration that Gay suggests. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I nominate Ndume for Gorilla SSP Facebook banner

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, Ndume (the feces-flinging gorilla with a heart) has been abandoned by his owners and lives without any contact with other gorillas. While Ndume lives in isolation at The Gorilla Foundation, he is only there as a “loan” from the Cincinnati Zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA zoos that exhibit gorillas cooperate on a “species survival plan” (the Gorilla SSP) that is supposed to address care and welfare issues as they ostensibly manage their captive populations. In April, I learned that the SSP had drafted a masterplan that makes recommendations to zoos about gorilla transfers, among other things. The draft reportedly recommended that Ndume be moved back to Cincinnati.

It is six months later, and no transfer has been forthcoming. Did the recommendation make it into the final plan? Has the zoo community forgotten about Ndume again? I hope that people are acting behind the scene, but that may be whistling in the wind. I am afraid that Cincinnati Zoo – which loudly touted itself in the media, as it brought reporters in to see how deeply they cared for cute (money-making) baby gorilla Gladys – has declined to accept its responsibility for their lonesome old bachelor.

It’s time to remind both Cincinnati Zoo and the AZA Gorilla SSP that we haven’t forgotten.

Every month the SSP asks for nominations for their Facebook banner. Even though I am obviously not a member of the group, I think they need a daily reminder that Ndume is depending on them. So I nominated Ndume.

BTW, despite APHIS’ earlier assurances that they will continue to monitor Ndume’s health and living conditions, there have been no visits, no inspections. I wrote APHIS earlier this week, urging an inspection and reminding them about the issues that affect Ndume’s welfare. Let’s see if they remember…

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Notorious chimp owner goes out of business, is arrested

This week we saw more evidence that the era of chimpanzee entertainment is ending. Chimp owner and exploiter James “Mike” Casey has left the arena, in notorious fashion. Through his company “A ‘Great Ape’ Experience,” Casey has been renting out chimpanzees and a capuchin monkey for use in TV, films, ads, and events. In June, we learned he was trying to sell his chimps. In July, his USDA exhibitor license was cancelled. In August, we learned of his arrest.

Casey's ad started appearing in June, 2013

PETA reported yesterday that they obtained records, through a public-records request, that reveal that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission arrested Casey last month at a roadside zoo, where he intended to sell three chimpanzees unlawfully. (Also see Las Vegas KLAS CH8 News reports.)

Why would Casey break the law to get rid of his chimps?

One reason is that he is probably desperate. He doesn’t have any place to keep them. For the past couple of years he has been living in Nevada, but his luck ran out. No county in Nevada will give a permit to keep chimpanzees in a community where parents want to keep their kids safe. Clark County denied him a permit last year. Nye County authorities denied a permit this year. No responsible local government wants him and his chimpanzees, for good reason. Mark Winer, a Casey friend, told KLAS News that the “chimps were kept in cages inside a darkened, brutally hot recreational vehicle and were rarely allowed out. ‘He would absolutely hit them atop the head with his knuckles,’ Winer said. ‘(The RV) was horrible. I wouldn't stay in there. I wouldn't let my worst enemy stay in there.” Amazingly, after talking to Casey in 2011, USDA APHIS Animal Care Inspector Warren Striplin recommended that the APHIS Office of Investigative and Enforcement Services conduct an official investigation of Casey. Even more amazingly (or maybe not), investigators evidently declined.

Maybe Casey was trying to sell illegally because owning chimps isn’t as fun as, say, a barrel of monkeys. While Casey cuddles with his adorable chimps in public, and displays pictures of kids cuddling with them as well, his friends know the real story. Again, from Winer: “He would pound on the cage, yell, take a stick and hit the cage or not feed them until they stop making noise. Mike has a very bad temper. He doesn't show that to the public.” Worse has been alleged. Winer said Casey cares about the chimps only because they are his meal ticket. If that’s the case, Casey has been on a starvation diet for the past couple of years, at least if he was telling the truth to federal Agricultural Department inspectors.

When animal exhibitors travel with their animals, they are required to file itineraries with USDA. In Casey’s case, his gigs have been few and far between. You can see the frustration in his itineraries. These are from his actual reports to USDA:

December 12, 2009: “We are traveling to Las Vegas & Pahrump, NV from Dec 12-January 12, 2009, with (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu. It has been really tough and slow for work out here in the Midwest. We will be looking for property & employment.”

January 12, 2010: “We are traveling between Las Vegas & Pahrump, NV and over to Southern, CA from Jan 12 - February 15, 2010, with (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu. We are continuing to look for property. There has been no exhibiting of the animals if a job comes up I will notify you immediately.”

Again, on February 15, 2010: “We are traveling between Pahrump, NV, Las Vegas and over to Southern, CA from Feb 16 - March 16 2010, with (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu. We are continuing to look for property & work. There has been no exhibiting of the animals if a job comes up I will notify you immediately.”

April 10, 2010: “We are traveling between Las Vegas, down to Laughlin, Pahrump, NV & Southern CA from Apr 17 - May 17, 2010, with (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu. We are continuing our search for property & work.”

May 8, 2010: “We are traveling between Las Vegas, NY and over to Southern, CA from April 25 - May 25 2010, with (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu. We are continuing to look for property & work. There currently is a possibility of a day job on May 22 in Los Angeles, CA, I will notify you if it becomes a real job.”

In his reports through the summer, Casey continues to bemoan the lack of work, continuing through Sept 2 and 21, 2010, when Casey reports that “We are currently staying with a friend at his residence: [redacted] I am continuing to look for work and for property in Las Vegas or in California.” On Oct 15, Casey reports “We just moved to: [redacted] I am continuing to look for work and for property in Las Vegas or in California.” Then the reports end for at least six months. (More recent itinerary reports, if they exist, are not available.)

On June 27, 2013, the USDA inspector attempted to inspect the chimps’ living conditions. The inspector reported: "A responsible adult was not available to accompany APHIS Officials during the inspection process at 0830 on 6/27/2012. Spoke with Mr Casey by telephone at time of attempted inspection. He stated he was out of town. He also stated he did not intend to pursue USDA licensing. Mr. Casey is currently licensed, but has not passed a site approval inspection. Until such time as he cancels his license, he remains subject to inspection."

On July 5, the USDA exhibitor license for JAMES M. CASEY, dba A "GREAT APE" EXPERIENCE, was cancelled. There is no more work for (3) chimps Hannah, Kenzy & Bentley, and capuchin Abu.

James “Mike” Casey has brought this mess down on himself. It is just really unfortunate that his chimps and monkey are the ones who have suffered, and continue to suffer. Casey had a chance to do the honorable thing, finally. But instead of working out an agreement with a reputable sanctuary, Casey allegedly tried to dump them in a roadside zoo in Florida. They were confiscated by Florida wildlife officials and are now at the non-accredited Suncoast Primate Sanctuary – an outfit that was in non-compliance with minimum conditions during USDA APHIS inspections in 2011 and 2013.

Time and public awareness have passed Casey by. The public is no longer willing to accept the idiocy of using chimpanzees in entertainment. It helps ease the outrage to know that Mike Casey may finally be held accountable. But the fate of Mike Casey’s chimpanzees and monkey are the real crime here. Let’s hope Florida officials give them a chance at a real life in a real legitimate sanctuary.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Changing historical Detroit Zoo chimp facts

I’ve mentioned (like, a couple hundred times) that one of dad’s favorite chimps from the 1940s and ‘50s was Jo Mendi II, named after Detroit Zoo’s money-making trend-setting FIRST Jo Mendi chimpanzee. Well. Just shows you’re never too old to learn new facts. Come to find out, there was a Jo Mendi before the Detroit Zoo’s first Jo Mendi! The zoo’s first Jo Mendi was actually the second Jo, and Jo II (who dad trained) was actually Jo III. And Jo Mendi 3 (1979-2005) is actually the fourth. (The Detroit Zoo really liked the name Jo Mendi – thus we have multiple generations of Detroiters who all think they saw “Jo Mendi.” And, in a way, they did, in the sense that they saw a smart chimp in costume, doing zany tricks and being exploited by the zoo.)
Jo Mendi II/III is in the center. Dad is the chimp trainer on the right.
Thanks to a wonderful blogpost, The True Story of JO MENDI, now we know the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say). And that story is fascinating. Step right up, folks, and read all about it! The original Jo Mendi was at the Scopes Trial! He was in vaudeville, movies, circuses and carnivals - but he never came to the Detroit Zoo. The second Jo Mendi (who was the Jo Mendi who ended up at Detroit) was in a Billy Rose revue! (If you’re trying to place the name, see James Caan in Funny Lady.) And more. That’s “more,” as in Detroit blogger Ed Golick thankfully reminding readers that while the public loved our entertaining chimps, we didn’t know about the abuse behind the curtain.

Many, many thanks to Ed for bringing these facts to light. I can’t help but think that these facts about yet another Jo Mendi further illustrates the cynical exploitation that is our shameful history of chimpanzees in the United States. That exploitation is a fact. Perhaps, though, with the upcoming U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision about chimpanzee endangered species status in the U.S., that fact will soon become history.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Humans support a chimp who supports an orangutan – and you can help with just a vote!

In 2005, four chimpanzees escaped from a depressing roadside zoo. While they dashed around the grounds – and actually made it to the downtown area – the zoo director shot and killed three of them: Reuben, Jimmy Joe, and Tyler. The fourth, an enterprising 15-year-old chimp named Ripley, ran back to his enclosure and let himself back in. I guess watching your companions die violently will end any misconceptions of freedom.

Ripley is now back in the public eye. Not as a basket case who attacked a caregiver, which would be understandable, or as a wretched example of primate PTSD. Ripley, it turns out, is an artist. He is one of six chimpanzee artists involved in a contest put on by the Humane Society of the United States. He has a chance to win $10,000 for the Center for Great Apes, the sanctuary that rescued him, if he garners enough votes from the public.

The American public once adored Ripley. Before his trauma at Zoo Nebraska, Ripley was in movies and television, in Ace Ventura and on Seinfeld. However, like every entertainment chimp before and after him, he grew too strong for his handlers – so he was dumped at a pitiful zoo. After witnessing the deaths of his companions, he was sent to a breeding facility (where he failed to breed), and then to another. After a year there, the trainer agreed to send Ripley to the Center for Great Apes.

Ripley was a real audience-pleaser on the Seinfeld TV show.

The Center for Great Apes is giving Ripley the best life a captive ape could hope for. He now lives with several old friends and a new one: Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s discarded pet chimpanzee. And he is painting.

The Humane Society’s online art contest asks us to vote for the painting of one of six chimps, all representing superb sanctuaries. Choosing just one is difficult (they are all wonderful!) but if you don’t have a particular favorite already, I hope you’ll vote for Ripley.

As it turns out, CGA will use the money to help offset some tremendous medical bills incurred by a recent life-and-death struggle of former entertainer orangutan BamBam. That’s what makes a vote for Ripley so… I don’t know… so “circle of life.” Humans supporting a chimp who is supporting an orangutan. It just shows how we’re all in this together.

  • Read more about Ripley, here.
  • Charles Siebert wrote about Ripley and the Center for Great Apes in his book, Wauchula Woods Accord. (If you read it, know that Siebert made up the book’s ending, as a “literary device.” He has admitted that his story about going into the apes’ night house and touching the chimp’s hand is false.)
UPDATE 8/29/2013: HSUS announced that Ripley won 3rd place, for a $2,500 grant for Center for Great Apes. Many thanks to all who voted for Ripley!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A tale of two books

I haven’t written much in the blog lately. I write a lot at work, so I really need a motivating factor to sit down to the blog… Those motivations are usually when I see people disrespecting apes, or using apes for their own selfish gains, or when I am inspired by compassionate concern for apes. So when I learn of two new chimp books that are on the publishing horizon, I naturally wonder about the authors’ motivations.

 In his upcoming compassionate book about chimpanzees,
Halloran writes about Jo Mendi II and my dad.
In the first case, the author’s motivations are simple yet complex: this is the book he had to write. I am privileged to see Andrew Halloran’s first draft of Lion Shaped Mountain (working title), and it is filled with inspiring stories as well as heartbreaking histories of chimps and the people who used and abused them. He weaves his narratives between the past and the present, and I marvel at his perception. Most important to me, personally, are his insights as he briefly shares the story of my dad and Jo Mendi II, the Detroit zoo chimpanzee who meant the most to him. I hold my breath as I read it, and then I cry. And now I hope… I hope that readers will understand and learn from the all too real experience.

In the second case, the author’s motivation is exploitation and greed. Doc Antle, the self-serving charlatan who exploits his animals for profit (while masquerading as a conservationist), is once again publishing a book of photographs that add to the grotesquely darling perception of apes as cute human toys. Scheduled for release in November, just in time for Christmas sales, his upcoming attempt at manipulation is The Tiger Cubs and the Chimp, another in his series of anthropomorphous swindles, as he continues to con naive animal lovers into thinking that baby animals just adore being forced into unnatural situations for long photo shoots and book tours. I don’t know for sure, but the chimp featured in this book may be his third chimp infant from breeder Connie Casey.

So. We have two books, both of them sad in their own way. The first one is heartbreaking because it honestly relates the disgraceful way we have treated chimps in the past; the second one is wretched for the way it treats chimps today. We have one situation where the author is pouring his heart into his book, finding the words that will help people understand chimps as they are, as they are meant to be. We have another situation where the author is manipulating cute pics of baby tiger cubs and a chimp to promote his faux “preserve for endangered animals,” creating an illusion that fulfills our fantasies of how we want our animals to be.

I wonder which book is going to make the most sales. I’ll bet, sadly, it’s not the book that offers the reader a deeper examination of the complex issues and emotions that have harmed chimpanzees through the centuries. It won’t be the book that inspires “ah, I understand.” It will be the book that inspires “aw, ain’t that cute?!” And that is truly sad.