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March 13, 2009

Invitation to a Gorilla Lovefest

Mother and baby gorilla at Burgers' Zoo, in the Netherlands
Photo: mape_s on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

The Aggregator is a shameless devotee of animal stories, and this week two gorilla babies have us in thrall. One is Frank, a six-month-old western lowland gorilla who made his public debut at the San Diego Zoo last Friday. The other is Hasani, whose name means "Handsome" in Swahili: It was chosen by the baby's father at the San Francisco Zoo on Wednesday, following a naming contest that generated some 5,300 entries from 40 countries.

The back-to-back news items reminded us that 2009 is the Year of the Gorilla, so designated by the United Nations and a coalition of the world's zoos. A good time, in other words, to look at how humans are getting along with their closest living relatives.

Not too well, in general. Gorillas are critically endangered, thanks to such human activities as logging, war, and the bushmeat trade. The Year of the Gorilla aims to help wild gorillas by alleviating human poverty in their range, an innovative conservation approach that has produced "heartening" results in Zambia's Luangwa Valley, according to Time "Going Green" columnist Bryan Walsh. The key: sustainable industries, such as beekeeping and tourism, that give local people an economic incentive to preserve wild habitat.

The Year of the Gorilla's Web site states that "zoos are crucial to educating and raising awareness of the deteriorating situation of gorillas and their habitat, as they are in a good position to reach the general public directly." One of the ways they do this, of course, is through mascots like Frank and Hasani.

In captivity, gorilla mothers often aren't up to the job of raising their young ("Clueless mom needs help" was the gist of an early report from San Francisco), and the blogosphere is full of stories about zoo babies who were rescued from neglect and rehabilitated by loving humans. (Wanna fall in love? Check out ZooBorns' baby pictures of Upala and video of Mary Zwo, two infants rehabilitated at Germany's Wilhelma Zoo.) Such intervention may be crucial to save a newborn's life, but it is nonetheless surrounded by controversy.

"The moving photograph of 11-year-old Gana carrying her infant's corpse and trying desperately to come to terms with his death captivated Germany, when the images were released yesterday," reported The Independent last summer. "Staff at the zoo in Münster discovered the baby gorilla, named Claudio, early on Saturday evening. He was lying dead on the floor of the cage he shared with his mother."

"The death of Claudio adds to the belief that breeding in captivity may be a mistake," wrote a TimesOnline contributor. "Eleven-year-old Gana has a history of neglecting her young. Claudio's death may have been a result of Gana's poor parenting, which itself may well have been the result of Gana's detachment from the wild."

Ethologist Marc Bekoff believes we should not be surprised by such outcomes. "A baby in the wild is born into a large social group. What kind of life is the baby animal going to have in the zoo--sentenced to a lifetime in captivity? Zoos say it's about repopulating wild populations but that's a lot of bull. They're going to make a lot of money, selling cute toys and candy." (Read his analysis of the Munster affair.) 

The zoo's decision not to rescue Claudio before it was too late provoked a storm of criticism. "There was no point in intervening again," said the zoo's director. "We cannot keep on taking away children from a mother."

"It Takes a Village to Raise a Gorilla" is senior keeper Janet Hawes' fascinating blog account of how the San Diego Zoo assisted in the raising of Frank after his hand-reared mother, Azizi, failed in her attempt to nurse him. "For the first five days," Hawes wrote, "Frank needed to be housed inside an incubator to maintain his body temperature. After that, we set up a crib and a play area in the hallway where Frank could see and hear his family and they would be constantly aware of him, too. As humans, we do not fully understand all the information that is transmitted from mother or family member to the infant gorilla in the first days and weeks of life. There are no doubt many important lessons that an infant gorilla would miss if reared by humans. As much as we could, we were determined to let the gorillas raise Frank so that he could fully benefit from their care." The account goes on to describe Frank's triumphant public debut on March 6. "One might never guess that this confident little six-month-old gorilla was rear-assisted by a dedicated staff of animal services personnel who had his best interests at heart. We could never have accomplished such a successful project without an awesome and gentle family of gorillas to give him back to."

So, are zoos helping to turn out the next generation of conservationists? "In 2007, I went to the Bronx Zoo," reads the Kids Save Apes home page, "and was blown away by the gorillas.  My parents got me the movie Gorillas in the Mist, and during the poaching scenes in the end, I was so terrified, I adopted a gorilla from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund right after. But I wanted to do more to help. I gathered my friends to form 'Kids Save Apes'. I made a website, an email address, and spread the plight of the apes. I notified teachers, parents, kids, senators, representatives, the president! Before I knew it, I had raised $500 (not including what other members had raised as well) and telling everyone about the cause. This May, I got to meet Dr Jane Goodall with my Vice President, James Brooks." James, by the way, is 12 years old. His personal own Web site says he attends a "zoo camp" each summer.

Further reading:
* A fascinating blog kept by the rangers of Virunga National Park, where gorilla tourism began (highly recommended)
* Frank's debut at San Diego Zoo on (video)
* The rearing of Hasani (video)


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