Saturday, June 23, 2012

Go to a zoo and smile!

Watching the hundreds of Facebook posts describing desperate situations for ape habitats and horrid captive conditions can be almost overwhelming at times. And my laments in this blog don’t usually prompt a smile, either. In the midst of all of our earnest efforts to improve the lives of our ape cousins, it may help to remember where we were 50 years ago, and realize how far we’ve come.
This is Jiggs, a wild-born orangutan that Detroit Zoo bought from a trader in 1955. Note the sterile white tiles and concrete. This was his 24-hour “home” in the zoo! Back then, zoos didn’t give their apes outdoor exhibit space. The apes never touched dirt.
Today, accredited zoos give their apes room outdoors to climb, swing, relax, bask in the sun, and even get away from the visitors if they want. Sure, we’d love for them (the apes, not the visitors) to be free in the wild, but that would be like plopping me down in the middle of Borneo or Uganda. Not a happy sight.
So, this summer, visit the apes at your favorite zoo. And ask the docent if there’s anything you can do to help enrich the lives of the orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, or bonobos you see there. Getting to know your local characters, and helping where you can, is sure to bring a smile to your face and theirs.

Now, chimpanzees at Detroit Zoo's Harambee exhibit can enjoy summer breezes.


  1. Thanks Dawn! Most people probably don't know that there were no anti-parasitic medications available for apes in those days, so the concrete or tile floors were mandatory to keep them from developing fatal loads of parasites. Even today, vets and keepers must keep a close eye on parasitic infections. Fecal checks should be part of health management for all apes.
    I actually got to meet Jiggs as an older adult, when he was living in Miami at Monkey Jungle, under the "alias" Sabang. His granddaughter is Hadiah, who was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

  2. And that's another reason to celebrate, isn't it? Caregivers know so much more, and have a support structure for the apes that is a thousand times better than it was back then. It seems hard to imagine that many zoos in the 1950s didn't even have vet facilities on the zoo grounds. I have an article about Tiny Tim, a baby chimpanzee at Detroit Zoo in 1948, being taken to a research laboratory for surgery on an infected leg bone. When they brought him back to the zoo afterwards, dad (who was just an assistant keeper) stayed with Tim through the night.

    BTW, your recall of orangutan lineage is amazing and wonderful!

  3. It'll sure be a good thing when captivity is a thing of the past for apes, with the exception of animals in war zones in their native lands.I'm certain many animal welfare people would like to see the zookeepers' expertise put to use in just this way.I oppose captivity but at the same time respect and appreciate the zookeepers who continue to do their best to help the captives in their care.