In 1986, a 5-year-old (Levan Merritt) fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo, broke his skull and arm, and was bleeding and unconscious in the concrete moat. Jambo, a 25-year-old gorilla approached, making the crowd panic. Jambo was born at the Basel zoo. His father was captured in Equatorial Africa by a gorilla hunter who sold him with two other gorilla babies to Columbus Zoo for $ 10,000. Jambo was eleven when they sold him to Jersey Zoo, separating him from his loved ones.
Seeing the child, Jambo circled around him, watching him carefully. He sat beside him and gently stroked his back. He caressed the bit of the boy’s back that the T-shirt did not cover with the back of his big hand, touched his own nose for a moment, and sat beside him, standing guard. When Levan regained consciousness, he began to scream, startling the gorillas. Jambo took them to the bedrooms, but when the gate was closing, a young gorilla escaped. Two men held him at bay while another man was hoisted with Levan outside the enclosure.
In 1996, a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo. His hand was broken, his body bruised and his face had a large gash. The zoo staff used pressure hoses to push the gorillas away. But Binti Jua, an 8-year-old female gorilla, niece of the famous Koko, approached him quickly, before the terrified eyes of the spectators. When she reached the boy, Binti lifted him carefully and carried him to a door on the ground floor which health workers could use to come and pick him up. She stood there waiting patiently with the child in her lap until they came for him. Had Binti been the fallen child, she would not have been picked up by their parents, since his father was locked up in San Francisco and his mother in the Bronx and then in Columbus, where she died.
A few days ago in Cincinnati, three-year-old Isiah Gregg fell into another of these prisons for innocent gorillas in the moat separating the gorillas and the wall. Harambe, a gorilla who had turned seventeen the day before approached and stood beside him. Gorillas are peaceful, vegetarian, non-territorial people, without gender violence. They can fight for a female, make sudden movements, and run back and forth to scare others, but rarely attack seriously. And if Harambe had approached the child to kill him, he could have done so within seconds. But he stood by his side, looking out.
Humans are virtually their only enemies. We enter their territories and kill them to eat them, to dissect them or to sell their offspring to zoos. As the shouting crowds leaned over the fence, Harambe looked confused. He dragged the child a few meters and stopped. He looked at the boy and placed him upright carefully. The crowd’s shouting continued. Harambe dragged the boy again very quickly and pulled him out of the water. Shortly after, the zoo decided to shoot Harambe dead.
I wonder what would have happened if Isiah had slipped away during a visit to a prison full of murderers and pedophiles, and one of them had pulled him out of the water. I also wonder why the mother is criticized just for having momentarily lost sight of her son rather than for taking him to the zoo to have fun looking at youngsters that have been kidnapped, wantonly condemned to life-imprisonment and turned into mental patients. I wonder why the zoo is criticized for choosing to shoot Harambe instead of offering him bananas in exchange for the child (a pact gorillas understand perfectly) and was not criticized for keeping gorillas in conditions where we lack confidence they will act as a normal gorillas, given the large number of mental disorders institutionalization causes them.
Humans do not need zoos to protect gorillas. We can protect habitats where they have developed their gorilla cultures. In addition, zoos can preserve the bodies of the gorillas, but they are very bad at preserving their culture or mental health.
If aliens kidnapped a few human babies or feral children and kept them in a cage, throwing food at them and cross-breeding them, they would get more human bodies. But multiplying a few bodies, without culture or mental health is not the same as preserving the gorilla, just like squeezing human babies into a Martian cage is not the way to preserve humanity.
Enough humans and animals have already died in zoos. Now, what should radically change, or die, is the zoo itself.
Paula Casal. ICREA researcher, Co-director of UPF Center for Animal Ethics and President of Great Ape Project-Spain.
© Mètode 2016.