Saturday, March 2, 2013

Zoos: Ya gotta love (hate) them

I keep reminding myself that zoos have changed over the last 50 years and that there are many good people working in zoos. I admire several wonderful and caring ape people in zoos across the country, and I rely on their frank and unstinting insights into captive chimp/bonobo/orangutan/gorilla issues. And yet…

I have written previously about my schizophrenic feelings about zoos (including in my short review of Thomas French’s excellent book, Zoo Story). I think a lot of people share those conflicting feelings. We love to connect with zoo apes, but we can’t help the feelings of sorrow knowing that these magnificent beings are subjected to lives behind bars and on display.

Of course, with dad’s job at the Detroit Zoo being so central to my childhood, I would love to shout out praises for modern zoos. After sending over 70 chimpanzees into research or god knows where during the chimp show era (~1935 – 1982), Detroit Zoo now maintains one of the best chimpanzee exhibits in the country. And yet, they continue to ignore or deny my requests for information about that bygone era, and so I am left with no choice but to bemoan their insularity.

My “home zoo” now is Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, and I am in love with the orangutans and gorillas there. (Alas, no chimpanzees, but nearby Maryland Zoo provides my chimp fix when I need one.) Several years ago, the National Zoo issued its latest master plan, which showed the Great Ape House replaced by a new Visitor’s Center – and no great ape exhibit. A new director subsequently assumed command, so there was some hope that the plans would change, but he has pretty much dashed those hopes with his recent observation to CBS News, in an interview about possible budget cuts due to the now-operative federal sequestration:
Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said, "If the sequester remains permanent, we're going to have to reduce our mission. We'll have to reduce our research, we'll have to reduce the number of animals we put on exhibit."
Kelly says the zoo would have to look at shutting down major exhibits. Kelly explained, "Major exhibits here include lions and tigers, it includes our reptile house where we do a lot of great research. It would include our great ape exhibit."
Sharing gazes is a wonderful experience for zoo
visitors (and me), as well as for orangutan Lucy.
I’m not sure what “reducing… animals we put on exhibit” means, but it can’t be good news for orangutan Lucy, who spends much of her day gazing into the eyes of visitors.

Topping off my list of current gripes about zoos is the Cincinnati Zoo, which I have never visited. The zoo owns Ndume, gorilla Koko’s imagined paramour, who Penny Patterson keeps under pitiful conditions at her California-based Gorilla Foundation. The zoo loaned Ndume to Patterson as a companion to Koko, who disdains him. As I wrote recently, animal welfare inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Patterson’s organization for non-compliance of minimum standards. I’ve sent several messages to the Cincinnati Zoo and the AZA Gorilla SSP asking what can be done to make sure that Ndume lives free from the pain that is alleged by former caregivers. Silence.

I really want to respect zoos and their self-proclaimed leadership in animal welfare and conservation. Following through on that desire, I ordered a copy of the new book, Zooland: The Institution of Captivity, by Irus Braverman. I was hoping for an objective exploration of the captivity and care issues, but it is near impossible to get past the book’s introduction. While Braverman asserts that she is neither pro-zoo nor anti-zoo, the introduction is nothing if not an ode in honor of zoos. It especially bothers me that she extols the nation’s zoos’ medical records system for gorillas, as if this is the answer to questions of health. And I question the extent of data collection. I would love to see the “copious amount of data” that Cincinnati Zoo collects from Patterson… especially detailing the alleged substitution of qualified medical care for Ndume with copious amounts of herbal supplements “prescribed” by a psychic.

Without questioning it, Braverman repeats the zoo community assertion that keeping a gorilla “and his wildness in captivity contributes to the conservation of gorillas and their habitats in nature.” What, they’re planning to release these domesticated captives into the forests of Africa when native populations crash? Oh, please. Gorillas are in zoos and in Penny Patterson’s trailers because they have a world of admirers who will pay cash to watch them. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the National Zoo, where the apes appear to be a dispensable drag on the zoo director’s budget plans.

Oh, zoos. Why do you make it so hard to love you?


  1. I just wanted to say my Father worked with your father during the 50's , training and operating the shows at the zoo. He had very mixed feelings about the chimps. He loved the time at the zoo and also said the chimps each had their own personalities. He believed the natural setting was the only way to truly keep and understand the chimps! Joe was Dad's favorite! He believed he was as smart or smarter than many people! I too have mixed feeling about zoo's Your truly Jeremy Schoenherr!

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jeremy! I've exchanged emails with other kids of trainers from back then, and it appears we all share the conflicting feelings.

      Do you have any pictures of the "chimp men" at Detroit? I asked the Detroit Zoo if I could see their old pictures and, par for the course, was ignored. Email me at