Monday, September 1, 2014

What happens to baby pet chimp when he becomes a strong adult?

When I first heard of the blog about Aya Katz and her pet chimp, Bow, I was angry and disgusted. People who keep great apes in their homes and raise them to be not-apes make my blood boil. But as I learned more about Ms. Katz’s situation, my anger turned to sadness. This is a disaster waiting to happen, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.

Aya has evidently been blogging about her experience raising a Bow for a number of years. She writes children's books, including one that, based on the Amazon reviews, is encouraging other mothers to buy a primate for their kids. How does someone arrive at a life decision to buy a pet chimpanzee and encourage others to do the same? At one point, Aya was a practicing attorney in Grand Prairie, Texas, but according to her online bio, she left the law and became a linguist. Somewhere along the line, she started calling herself a primatologist – although she doesn’t cite any formal education in primatology. (I guess a chimp owner could consider oneself “home schooled.”)

Aya Katz holds baby Bow at the breeder's place, while another young chimp and Aya's daughter look on.
Project ChimpCare estimates that there are more than 50 chimpanzees with private breeders and in private homes across the United States. I’m sure that every single one of the owners think they know better than real primatologists, that they will shower so much love on their little chimp that it will never harm them or try to escape or harm others. I’m sure Aya never thinks that Bow will harm her or anyone else, not even when he is 20 years old with hormones raging, and has five times the strength of a man. Bow will never turn into a rampaging Travis, tearing off the face of his owner’s best friend. Bow will never be like Buddy, escaping his cage and getting gunned down on a neighborhood street. Bow won’t become one of a line of dead pet chimps.

Aya says she bought Bow in 2002, which means he is at least 12 years old now. Aya is in her 50s. So what does she have planned for Bow? After all, as a “primatologist,” Aya must know that chimpanzees can live 50 years or more, and will always be dependent 24/7 on a human caregiver. What has Aya planned for Bow’s next 40 years?

“We are still getting along just fine. And I think we will continue to get along when he is an adult,” Aya writes, optimistically, in her blog. “But the question for me is how to prepare for the day when Bow no longer has me to rely on. And any solution I choose, I believe needs to be a solution that is not just good for Bow, but for ten generations into the future.”

Looking ten generations ahead is great. But what about THIS generation? What is going to happen to this specific chimpanzee?

Aya evidently doesn’t want the assistance of a sanctuary, “because the funding for [sanctuaries] comes from people who have no real interest in chimpanzees and who are largely committed to ending the existence of chimpanzees outside the continent of Africa.” So, we can establish the fact that she is abysmally ignorant about the tens of thousands of people who give up their own money to help support chimpanzees that are not theirs. Chimps just like Bow.

She “hopes” that Bow will have children of his own. How does that happen, when he is stuck in a private home, alone in his cage?

Is she going to want to put him in a zoo? I don’t know of any accredited zoo that will take a discarded pet chimpanzee who hasn’t been with his own species since he was grabbed from his mother’s arms to be sold to someone like Aya. But perhaps there is a roadside zoo where Bow can sit in his rusty cage and get teased by rowdy customers. That is one of the few options left, because Aya knows the breeder won’t take him back. In her blog post, she explains that when she first bought Bow the breeder wanted to make sure “that you won't bail out when the going gets tougher.”

We know that it is going to get tougher. It always does. And chimpanzee owners need to bail – regardless of what the breeder says as she takes the check.

There are few ways out, and Aya has closed the door to them. This is going to have a sad ending.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chimp photo represents plight of apes in entertainment

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.  --Aristotle
Art4Apes is holding its 2nd annual ENDANGERED Art& Photography contest, to benefit the wonderful Center for Great Apes. I’m not an artist, but I have a couple of the photographs that my father took with his Kodak camera back in 1950, when he was a chimp trainer at the Detroit Zoo. Even though I am not eligible to compete for the money prize (since I am not the photographer), the organizers were kind enough to accept the photo. I believe it represents the plight of apes in entertainment.



Jo was one of more than a hundred chimps who were stolen from murdered mothers' arms in Africa, destined for short entertainment careers with the Detroit Zoo’s long-running Chimp Show. The trainers would use violent techniques – pinching, slapping, and punching – to show the chimpanzees "who was boss." Jo Mendi II was that era's only chimpanzee to remain at the Detroit Zoo beyond the first seven or eight years of cuteness. Most of the others were dumped into research or breeding facilities.

Dad was one of the trainers who abused the chimps. He was fired when he finally went too far and threw a young chimpanzee against the wall. It seems fitting, then, to use Dad’s photo of Jo ‒ showing the anthropomorphic costume, the gray desolation, and the shadows of the bars ‒ to educate people about the abuse and exploitation of these marvelous chimpanzees.

The Detroit Zoo stopped putting clothes on its chimps in the mid-1980s. The Chimp Shows stopped. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by Leonardo DiCaprio's despicable use of a chimp in a recent movie, the exploitation of apes in entertainment continues today.    

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Using Koko to exploit the death of Robin Williams

The Gorilla Foundation says this is Koko lamenting
the death of Robin Williams. Former caregivers point
out that this is her everyday funk.
I see that Penny Patterson is now exploiting Robin Williams’ death to promote her Gorilla Foundation. It’s one thing to recirculate a video taken more than a decade ago, when Robin met Koko, if the point is to pay tribute to a good man. It is quite another thing, however, to take pictures of Koko in her everyday funk and tell gullible media – who are searching for ANY new angle on the Williams story – that Koko is so terribly sad about the death of a human she met more than ten years ago. Naturally, ape lovers who don’t know better will give $$ to Koko in honor of Robin. And that’s the whole point of this disgusting exploitation, isn’t it Penny?

This week marks a new low for The Gorilla Foundation.

(BTW, if this use of Robin Williams is tempting you to contribute, you might want to review The Gorilla Foundation's rating on Charity Navigator. It has a low rating, only 2 stars. There are better ways to support gorilla conservation and welfare.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Petition ends for Ndume after pleas by thousands fall on deaf ears

Poor Ndume. Over 3,000 people tried to convince Cincinnati Zoo and the AZA Gorilla SSP to end Ndume's isolation at The Gorilla Foundation, but those efforts have evidently failed. It may be because of the reason that former Ndume caregiver John Safkow wrote: "He's too screwed up for a zoo." Decades of living in a trailer can do that to a silverback.
Ndume gets junky "enrichment" on his birthday.

Recently, the zoo's public relations department started sending FB critics a message asserting, despite voluminous first-hand evidence to the contrary, that Ndume was receiving enrichment and socialization at TGF, and was in daily contact with Koko.

We know that Ndume and Koko do not, in fact, come into daily contact. They don't have any physical contact, period. And enrichment? The "enrichment" activities are enough to drive any silverback crazy, if you ask me. On "sock day," caregivers tie socks with nuts and treats inside. On "box day" Ndume gets treats inside cereal or other food boxes.  On "clothing day," Ndume gets articles of old clothing stuffed with nuts and treats. On "pill bottle day" (caregivers say they always had hundreds if not thousands on hand from all of Koko's required pill popping), caregivers would put nuts and treats in pill bottles and scatter them in the yard. Then there was the glorious "scatter day" with bare stuff placed around the outdoor enclosure. If that is "enrichment," then I'm a monkey's uncle.

Over a month ago, I asked the Gorilla SSP if they agreed with the zoo's assertions. I asked if they had withdrawn the recommendation in the draft gorilla management plan that called for the zoo to bring Ndume back into the zoo population. Still no answer.



In recognition of reality, I have ended the petition calling on the Cincinnati Zoo to bring Ndume out of his isolation. If Ndume is too far gone for integration back into normal zoo populations, and there are no gorilla sanctuaries in the U.S., then it looks like he'll have many, many more "pill bottle days" at TGF. I'm sure he appreciates the enrichment.   

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More questions about Iowa bonobo management

Noted ape researcher Frans de Waal posted an update on his public Facebook page, noting that “Kanzi is a language-trained bonobo at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (ACCI) in Iowa.” I also referred to the latest incarnation in Iowa as ACCI, but Frans' post got me wondering (again) about what is going on in Iowa.

I checked the USDA APHIS lists for anything on ACCI. Nothing. Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary – Great Ape Trust – Bonobo Hope (yes, the federal government uses all three names) is still listed as Kanzi’s owner.


I checked the IRS listing of charitable organizations for anything on ACCI. Nothing. IPLS is registered, however.



Frans also stated that “Bill Hopkins, the new director (together with Jared Taglialatela), sends me an updated photograph of Kanzi, who has lost 20 Kg (44 pounds) in the last 6 months. BTW - The dessert contest was not their idea.”

The Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has a Facebook page, active as of this weekend. It lists Steve Boers as director, not Bill Hopkins. That may explain why “the new director” was not able to stop the use of Kanzi in a public relations stunt: because he isn’t the director of the organization that owns and manages the bonobos?



Once again, there are more questions than answers about what the hell is happening in Iowa. I'd love to celebrate progress evidently reported by Yerkes scientists de Waal and Bill Hopkins, and Yerkes research associate Jared Taglialatela, as many are, but I'm concerned that they may not have much say-so, besides changing Kanzi's dietary regime. Who is actually in charge? And why can't the organization stay with one friggin' name? 

(And where is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh? I can’t believe she is sitting idly by…)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

No Dignity in Asking Kanzi, the 'Ape of Genius,’ to Judge Unhealthy Iowa State Fair Foods

A guest article by Beth Dalbey, a former employee of the Great Ape Trust


One question: Will a scientist with standing be on hand to explain what Kanzis choices mean, or even that he sometimes beats at the glass during visits to show he doesnt suffer fools quietly? Or will the publics understanding be limited to the explanation from a breathless volunteer: "Kanzi loooooves dessert”?

This is a cheap trick to play on a bonobo who blurred the line between human and non-human primates when he acquired language simply by being exposed to it, as human children do, demonstrated an aptitude for stone tool making, and is a precious scientific treasure.

To be mocked and put on display as he eats food that is unhealthy and bad for him is the ultimate indignity to this very dignified bonobo who is self-aware enough to know he is a star.

Instead of exploiting an obese ape with a heart  condition – the biggest concern in the article seems to be that Kanzi will “snarf everything down and then dismiss us” before the photographers can get decent video – the Register might look at four bonobo deaths at the facility since they arrived in Des Moines in 2005.

That includes two in recent years – Matatas two weeks ago and Panbanishas in 2012, which is still shrouded in questions. The public was told Panbanisha died of a “cold,” yet the necropsy report has never seen the light of day, despite the current directors insistence that theyre focused on transparency at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative.

After Matata died, the ACCI promised to release the results her necropsy, Theres nothing to suggest this ape in her mid-40s died for any other reason than natural causes, but a history of ape deaths at the facility should at least make reporters curious enough to stop mocking these rare, endangered great apes for humans entertainment long enough to ask questions when some of them die.

While theyre on the subject of deaths in this one-of-a-kind bonobo family – there is no other group like them in the world, and the studies taking place with three generations of bonobos raised in a unique bicultural atmosphere can never be duplicated – they might ask for clarification about Panbanishas death.

The loss of Panbanisha is significant – and a tragedy that may have been preventable.

Like Kanzi, she also had receptive competence for spoken English and many scientists considered her “the true ape of genius,” despite that moniker more often being assigned to Kanzi. She was a complex individual and elegant in her ability to manipulate situations to get what she wanted. There was always a “maybe” in Panbanishas response to requests.

If Panbanisha did die of a cold, as the public has been told, did veterinarians rule out as a possible factor young Tecos well documented travels around the city, where he was pictured on social media in public settings that included a large auditorium that hosted the Buddha Relics tour? What are the odds that the guests there were asked to wear masks or provide proof theyd had flu shots and had passed TB tests, common protocol when sharing the same air space as apes, who are vulnerable to human respiratory ailments?

Intellectually curious reporters might ask if the scientific mission has changed.

Is ACCI still focused on the same non-invasive language collaborations these valuable research apes have been involved in throughout their lives?

Or will scientists Bill Hopkins and Jared Taglialatela begin “knocking down” apes with anesthesia, ensuring they dont move during invasive brain imaging (MRIs)? Do they share documented concerns in the veterinary community that certain anesthetic protocols may exacerbate or artificially induce signs of cardiac disease?

As part of ACCI’s claimed conservation mission, do Hopkins, Taglialatela, Steve Boer, Tami Watson and others associated with the ACCI have concerns that using apes in entertainment perpetuates not only the notion that great apes are ours to mock and profit from, but also the misconception that they are common and ordinary, and not a blink away from extinction?

Apparently not. Please call this off.

Failing that, will Kanzi at least get a lousy Size 3X Des Moines Register/Iowa State Fair T-shirt out of the deal?

If they must do this, the architects of this travesty should at least have Kanzi judge fresh fruits and vegetables, foods that are actually good for him.

Oh, and to give Kanzi back some of his dignity, the people who cooked this publicity stunt should be streamed live over the Internet eating ape chow so we can all sit back and laugh and jeer as they point at their favorites.

(Full disclosure: I worked as an editor in the communications department at the former Great Ape Trust from 2007-2010. For the record, if I'd suggested something like this, I probably would have been fired – for good reason.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bad news for fans of bonobo Kanzi and gorilla Ndume

BONOBO KANZI GETS THE CARNIVAL TREATMENT - AGAIN

They are at it again. The Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary / (and now) Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative has emerged from a short hiatus when many of us hoped they were reorganizing as a serious sanctuary. Fat chance. They are up to their old carnival tricks again, exploiting poor Kanzi. Again.

Bonobo Kanzi will help judge the [Iowa State] Fair food contest,” Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Miller writes. Yes, poor overweight Kanzi – who several experts fear may be a heart attack waiting to happen – is going to eat whatever fat-laden desserts the Iowans send him, to determine which one he likes best. It’s an educational effort, we’re supposed to believe. Ya know, teaching the public how endangered bonobos scarf down cakes, pies, fried foods, and other unhealthy fats and carbs as they sit in their disappearing African habitats.

Kanzi in 2011, and in 2013.
At least the latest gimmick doesn’t involve another RoboBonobo, a bright idea from earlier years. Instead, this one has a Kanzimobile to get the food to him, fast. So much more in line with a serious “conservation initiative."

It is clear that they are doubling down on their attempts to promote themselves as an entertainment venue, abandoning their earlier claims to being a sanctuary. I’ve given up on them, with all the sympathy I have for Kanzi and the four remaining others. (I was so sorry to hear about the death of Matata last week.) But even though I’ve thrown up my hands and lost hope that anyone will ever give these bonobos the environment and care they deserve, I am more determined than ever about one thing: this outfit cannot be allowed to bring more apes into their shenanigans.

Last January, after the most recent switch in leadership, an ape expert close to the situation told me there was talk about moving some chimps there, “which will bring in some funding.” That news didn’t come out of the blue, because one of Iowa bonobo volunteers was on Facebook talking about the organization getting 20 or more chimps. They were (are?) looking to feed at the federal trough, with more chimpanzees due to retire from research facilities – supported by federal dollars.

I predict that if the Iowa bonobo folks try to compound the travesty they’ve inflicted on these poor bonobos, by bringing more apes into their operations, the howl from ape advocates everywhere will reach a crescendo that has never been heard before.

Update August 14: The results from the contest are in and... ta da!... Kanzi recognized grapes! Woo hoo! See Bonobo judge steals State Fair show. (This is science? This is journalism?? So sad.)

GORILLA NDUME TO STAY IN HIS CALIFORNIA TRAILER

Unfortunately, the news out of Iowa isn’t the only bad news for U.S. captive apes. Despite a recommendation from AZA’s draft gorilla management plan, Cincinnati Zoo is evidently leaving Ndume at his rundown trailer home on the grounds of The Gorilla Foundation. The zoo’s Ron Evans and the SSP’s Kristen Lukas reportedly visited Ndume and, after a couple of hours watching Ndume and drinking the Gorilla Foundation kool aid, have decided to abandon him there. (I say “reportedly” because the TGF illustrated the visit with a picture – of the two humans with Koko! Why no picture of the two with Ndume? Weird.)

The Gorilla Foundation presentation to the AZA Gorilla SSP included this slide, showing zoo officials visiting Koko --while supposedly assessing Ndume. Funny how they didn't show a picture of them with Ndume. 
The Cincinnati Zoo is sending out Facebook messages to people who have asked why the zoo is not assuming their responsibilities for Ndume. Cincinnati Zoo is, shall we say, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the truth when they explain their abandonment. 

“Most importantly, there is clearly value in the relationship between Ndume and the female gorilla ‘Koko,’” the zoo’s public relations department wrote to a FB questioner. “While the two do not cohabitate they do have social opportunities daily that are mutually beneficial and enriching.” I’ve heard from several former Gorilla Foundation employees who tell me, emphatically, that is not true. Koko will not abide another gorilla. Not Michael (who died), and not Ndume. The silverback lives by himself, with only human keepers -- one at a time, never more -- trying their best to give him "enrichment."

In a strange quirk, the zoo and The Gorilla Foundation are sending out cross-messages. Cinci public relations says “moving forward, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Gorilla SSP, and the AZA will continue to work with The Gorilla Foundation to help them provide increasingly professional standards of care for both Ndume and Koko.” But what does The Gorilla Foundation report in the recent presentation (given by Ken Gold) to the Gorilla SSP? That they plan to “mine the data” from Koko and Ndume “to help captive management of all gorillas…” etc., etc. So what are they? An operation that needs help (per Cincinnati), or a shining example of gorilla management (per TGF)? My personal opinion, after listening to people who have worked with Koko and Ndume and hearing from people who know Ron Evans: I’m not impressed with the spin coming from the zoo or TGF. I think it’s about money for both organizations. Cinci doesn’t want a feces-flinging silverback interfering with their continuing exploitation of gorilla Gladys, and TGF wants to keep up their decades-long fa├žade. All for the money.

Money, money, money. Whether it’s the broke and broken down bonobo group, the Koko krazies, or a zoo, the bottom line is money. The exploited apes suffer, as they have in the past and as they will in the future. And there’s not a damn thing you or I can do about it.

Postscript: If you want to tell Cincinnati Zoo what you think of their decision, join over 3,700 of your fellow advocates and sign our petition.

(Note: I asked the Iowa bonobo organization’s executive director for an interview last spring, with no response. I’ve written several emails to Cincinnati Zoo officials, with no response. I’ve also sent questions to the Gorilla SSP through their Facebook page, since they don’t have contact information on their website, and have received no response. The Gorilla Foundation kindly wrote me a letter several years ago, threatening me. I can understand TGF and bonobo group, but this lack of public transparency from the zoos is another reason why a growing number of people reject zoos and everything they stand for.)

July 4, 2014 update: Beth Dalby, who formerly worked at the Great Ape Trust, wrote this powerful and insightful post on her Facebook page. I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes could be a new dawn for apes in entertainment

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was more than a fantastic movie. To those of us who love great apes and who are determined to end their use in entertainment, the movie went beyond raising deeply important issues of human prejudice and empathy. To us, Rise of the Planet of the Apes – and the next movie in the prequels to the iconic 1968 Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – may represent a turning point for ape welfare. Because, you see, these movies are proof that human actors, with the assistance of technology and creative genius, can tell the ape story. They can BE apes.
Incredible human actors play apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Thousands of people have come to this blog by using the Google search phrase, “how real is Planet of the Apes?” They saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and they couldn’t believe they weren’t watching real chimpanzees, a real gorilla, a real orangutan. The human actors who played the apes were so true to life, true to the spirit and essence of their ape characters, that the audience believed them. And because they were able to connect with their audience, the actors did a better job than real apes could in telling the apes’ stories.

The method that brings these ape characters to life is called “performance capture.” In a recent interview, Staci Layne Wilson of Dread Central was talking to Andy Serkis (who plays chimpanzee Caesar) about the method, and asked if it was helpful “to have a lot of other actors also doing motion capture” in the movie.

Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice
“It's a great ensemble cast, really talented actors,” Andy responded. “I don't actually see myself as the best of motion capture. I think I’m a relatively good actor, but there are amazing actors in this film… Karin [Konoval], who plays Maurice, is fantastic; she turns in a wonderful performance.”

Andy is right about Karin, of course. Maurice is the orangutan in the movie, and anyone who has ever looked into an orangutan’s eyes will recognize the honesty of Karin Konoval’s performance. 


So how does one do it? How does one BE an ape? 

If you haven’t seen video of performance capture in the raw, before the technological wizards do their magic, you should check it out. During filming, the ape actors wear grey body suits rigged with sensors that track every movement of their body, a helmet camera that tracks facial expressions in meticulous detail, and a sound microphone. Then, in post-production, the geniuses at Weta Digital apply the "digital make up," adding anatomical layers until the actors look like apes.


The result is magic for audiences around the world. The result may also lead to end of Hollywood's use of apes in movies. See the magic, and see a real dawn for apes in entertainment.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in U.S. theaters on July 11.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

When zoos kill for your viewing pleasure

As one zoo slaughters a perfectly healthy young giraffe in front of a paying audience, and another zoo lets a one-armed geriatric monkey live out her waning days basking in the comfort of the sun she loved so much, we are reminded of everything we despise and admire in zoos.

The deaths of Marius the giraffe and Maude the mangabey represent the yin and yang of modern zoo management.

The Copenhagen Zoo killed 2-year-old Marius in February, in a population management process they call “culling,” claiming they needed to prevent inbreeding – even though other zoos had offered to take the healthy giraffe. They then proceeded to dismember it, for feeding to other zoo animals, in front of a crowd that included children. Ignoring the public outrage, Danish zoo officials followed up their macabre act by killing four healthy lions in March so they could bring in a breeding male – to produce more revenue-generating cubs. I assume they did not offer the lions up for a canned hunt, although I can’t verify that.

Copenhagen Zoo kills a healthy young giraffe and dismembers it in front of zoo visitors.


National Zoo made sure Maude enjoyed
the last years of her long life.
Here in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo reported this week that they finally had to euthanize 41-year-old Maude, a grey-cheeked mangabey who lost her forearm when she was four years old. (A gibbon in an adjacent cage had severely injured the arm, which required amputation below the elbow.) I knew Maude from my years as volunteer at the zoo. She was not a crowd pleaser. The National Zoo didn’t keep her around because she was a money making attraction. During her final years, she was housed with an old arthritic macaque named Spock, in an area that the keepers customized for the animals’ ease and comfort. Why? Because the zoo owed them the care and respect due to every animal bred for zoo exhibition.

I’m sure that not everyone who works at Copenhagen Zoo likes to kill their animals. And the National Zoo does many things that I disagree with. But these events point to the evolutionary thinking – or lack thereof – in the responsibility that zoos have for their animals.

When my dad was a chimp trainer at the Detroit Zoo, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the zoo had no sense of responsibility towards the hundreds of chimpanzees they brought in to entertain the paying crowds. As I’ve written in my International Zoo News article, “Chimp Shows Amuse and Abuse,” Detroit sent dozens of young chimps to research labs when they became too unmanageable for their infamous chimp shows. Looking through the AZA chimpanzee studbook now, I’m struck by how many have the notation “LTF,” or lost to follow – meaning there is no record documenting how the zoo got rid of the chimp. I want someone to tell me they weren’t “culled” in the Copenhagen tradition. Tell me that isn’t the reason the Detroit Zoo has never responded to my multiple requests to talk to them about the chimp show era.

Ah, but you object to my morbid imagination? American zoos are so much more responsible now, they care about their animals now, even the old and infirm like Maude, you say?

So then tell me about Ndume.

The Cincinnati Zoo continues to inspire coo-ing and ah-ing with their videos of sweet baby gorilla Gladys, in anticipation of the spring surge of visitors. In the meantime, one of their silverbacks continues to live in isolation as the pretend-suitor of Koko the signing gorilla. He lives in a trailer – a TRAILER!! – with health care decisions managed by people who take advice from a phone psychic. Despite the AZA gorilla SSP management recommendation to reclaim Ndume from the conditions he’s been subjected to for these many years, Cincinnati has not acted. And, like the officials at the Detroit Zoo, they refuse to answer my inquiries. Neither zoo, it seems, thinks it owes the public an explanation for their animal management decisions. Well, maybe a petition will help convince Cincinnati Zoo. (Please sign my petition to bring Ndume home.)

At least the Danish zoo officials explained themselves. Transparency is one indication of modern management.

Now if we could just get all zoos on the same page, to be transparent AND humane, there might be hope for the zoo of tomorrow: the zoo that doesn’t harm – or kill – for entertainment.

Friday, January 10, 2014

European zoos castrating male gorillas for easier management

Update, 28 July 2014: Please sign this petition asking European zoos to stop castrating their gorillas.

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.