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

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.