Former senior staff member & plaintiff in 2005 lawsuit detail similar incidents, involving different pit bulls, years apart
WOODSIDE, California––We never expected to find alleged pit bull attacks involved in the long, often sordid saga of the Gorilla Foundation, home of Koko the signing gorilla from her infancy until her death on June 19, 2018, 15 days short of her 47th birthday.
Until a week ago ANIMALS 24-7 did not know that pit bulls had ever lived at the Gorilla Foundation.
But it is axiomatic among people concerned about the human and animal victims of dog attacks that if there are allegations of mendacity, misrepresentation, and indifference toward the safety of staff, volunteers, and the public at an animal charity, cover-ups and denial of dangerous pit bull behavior will be part of it.
Not all was Koko cuddling kittens
The Gorilla Foundation, according to many sources found by ANIMALS 24-7, has been no exception, even if the particulars of pit bull incidents have rarely before leaked to an adoring public enthralled by photos of Koko cuddling kittens.
Uncritically donating upward of $1 million a year to the Gorilla Foundation, few Koko fans appear to have abandoned the much debunked fantasy that founders Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn achieved unique breakthroughs in animal/human communication.
The notion of the Gorilla Foundation as a haven for the animal residents and an enthralling place to work survived sensational lawsuits from multiple former staff in 2005, soon settled out of court.
Gorilla Foundation vs. Cincinnati Zoo
Battalions of social media animal advocates are now rallying around Patterson, Cohn, and The Gorilla Foundation in fierce opposition to a lawsuit filed by the Cincinnati Zoo in August 2018 seeking the return to the zoo of Ndume, 37, a feces-flinging silverback loaned to the Gorilla Foundation as a potential mate for Koko in 1991, after Koko failed to mate with Michael, 1973-2000.
(See Fight over feces-flinging gorilla Ndume goes to federal court.)
Koko and Ndume never mated, and apparently rarely socialized. Yet 27 years later Ndume is still at the Gorilla Foundation, the last of three gorillas to have spent almost their entire lives in closer confinement there than they would have experienced as inmates of almost any American Zoo Association-accredited exhibition facility.
Memories of Harambe
Some of the hue-and-cry that Ndume should stay at the Gorilla Foundation comes from people who remain in denial that the Cincinnati Zoo had no choice on May 28, 2016 except to shoot another silverback gorilla, Harambe, after a toddler fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla exhibit and Harambe swung the toddler violently by one leg, the child’s head coming within inches of the concrete moat wall.
(See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old; Conclusion: what the life & death of Harambe the gorilla means; And the lesson from Harambe’s death is? Well, it’s not to blame mom.)
That Cincinnati Zoo gorilla facility, already slated for replacement with safer accommodations, was closed, demolished, and replaced with a new pavilion opened in December 2017.
PETA favors return to the zoo
Some of the hue-and-cry comes from animal advocates who genuinely believe that Ndume is already in the best possible place for him.
But that perspective is not shared by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, usually deeply critical of zoos, which has urged that Ndume be returned to the Cincinnati Zoo and the company of other gorillas as soon as possible.
The view that Ndume should be returned to the Cincinnati Zoo is also endorsed by the many former Gorilla Foundation staff and volunteers contributing to the Facebook page “Ndume The Gorilla Deserves Better,” including former Gorilla Foundation “Caregiver/Researcher & Provisions Coordinator” John Safkow.
Introducing John Safkow
Introducing Safkow to the staff page in February 2012, the Gorilla Foundation posted:
“John has many years (and miles) under his belt working as a flight attendant for United Airlines. In addition to his airline career, he is passionate for all animals,” with a background including “volunteer work at wildlife rescue centers and humane societies in the [San Francisco] Bay Area,” where “His most challenging and rewarding work was as a ‘Custody Care” volunteer.”
Explained the Gorilla Foundation, “This work involved care for domestic animals held at the center while their owners were on trial for cruelty, neglect, or abuse. Pit bulls were his [Safkow’s] passion and primary focus.”
Posted Safkow to “Ndume The Gorilla Deserves Better” on November 25, 2018, “I was on as night monitor when Penny [Patterson] fell and fractured her hip.”
This incident has also been mentioned by others, including Andrea Morabito of the New York Post in a July 28, 2016 article entitled “The sad twilight of Koko the gorilla and her ‘mother’.”
The other sources, however, did not explain how the fall occurred that produced the fractured hip.
Bully & registered biter
Said Safkow, “She [Patterson] was knocked down by Ron [Cohn]’s pit bull in Ron’s kitchen. The pit was/is another sad Gorilla Foundation animal story. He was adopted as a puppy and Ron never took the time to properly train him. Redd was/is a bully, and a ‘registered biter’ with the county. He has sent more than one staffer to the hospital. We could do an entire chapter on this poor dog.
“That night,” continued Safkow, “Penny notified me on the hand-held radio that she had fallen and had already contacted local emergency agencies. Within minutes the La Honda Fire Department arrived, along with County Sheriff’s Department officers. Penny was on the kitchen floor, but Redd the pit was chained outside the opened door with access to the kitchen where Penny lay. Redd was acting aggressively and emergency personnel were not able to reach Penny to administer aid.
“Emergency technicians would not leave their vehicle”
“Because of Redd’s behavior and random attacks,” explained Safkow, “no one but Penny, Ron, and Ron’s foster kids were ever able to be around Redd. This night I was of no help. Although a familiar face, I was not able to enter the kitchen with Redd acting out. The emergency medical technicians would not leave their vehicle, as they saw Redd as a threat to their safety. There was discussion of shooting Redd.
“Ron was out for the evening but had been notified,” Safkow wrote. “We all waited for Ron to arrive to remove Redd from the area in order for paramedics to reach Penny.”
How did the Gorilla Foundation gorillas respond?
“We were helpless”
“Ndume’s trailer is closest to Ron’s house, only separated by the driveway,” Safkow narrated. “Ndume had been locked up and shuttered for the night, but the commotion had him extremely agitated. Ndume was screaming and banging on the walls.
“We were helpless with Penny on the kitchen floor,” Safkow said, “chained Redd reacting viciously to all (he was reactive and I think instinctively protecting Penny and his turf), and Ndume screaming and pounding from inside his trailer.
“One of the responders approached me and asked half jokingly, “Whatever is in that trailer can’t get out, can it? It sounds like he could bust through the wall. We’re okay right?”
Animal control not called
San Mateo County Animal Control apparently was not called.
“There is nothing even remotely related to what you describe in the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA records,” Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA executive director Ken White told ANIMALS 24-7.
Penny Patterson herself did not respond to an ANIMALS 24-7 inquiry.
Sandra Marchese case
But ANIMALS 24-7 did find a description of a similar incident involving a different pit bull, allegedly occurring years earlier, in the February 2005 lawsuit against the Gorilla Foundation and Penny Patterson by former staff members Nancy Alperin, Kendra Keller, and Sandra Marchese.
The case is best remembered because Alperin and Keller claimed they had been fired for refusing to expose their breasts to Koko.
Alperin and Keller also contended that they worked unpaid overtime and were obliged to work amid unsanitary conditions, and that they were fired one day after California occupational health and safety inspectors fined the Gorilla Foundation $300 for violations that were later corrected.
The Alperin and Keller complaints were reportedly settled out of court on undisclosed terms in December 2005. ANIMALS 24-7 found no record of the disposition of the Marchese complaint.
The first portion of the Marchese complaint was, attorney Stephen A. Sommers narrated, that “One of Mr. Cohn’s dogs, Max, a large male pit bull, would fiercely bark and jerk against his chain when Marchese walked by Mr. Cohn’s residence.
“One day while Max was chained outside,” Sommers wrote, “Marchese noticed scraps of paper strewn about Mr. Cohn’s driveway. She knelt down to pick them up and did not notice Max lunge toward her. Max bit down on her arm and his force pushed Marchese into the side of the garage.
“Marchese dropped the papers and ran into the garage to escape Max. She looked down and found a hole in her sweatshirt and that her arm was scraped.
Cohn allegedly said “Walk the dog”
“She ran to the office shaking, and when safely arriving there, broke down in tears. Marchese informed Patterson of Max’s attack upon her, to which Patterson replied, ‘This must never happen again,’ and informed Mr. Cohn of Max’s attack.
“Incredibly,” Sommers continued, “Mr. Cohn’s response was that Marchese should begin walking Max so the they could ‘get to know each other.’
“Later, Mr. Cohn approached Marchese with Max on a leash. Mr. Cohn told Marchese that walking Max was the only way to ‘solve the problem.’
“Marchese adamantly refused and asked that Patterson and Mr. Cohn kennel Max in the evenings so that Marchese could clean Mr. Cohn’s kitchen,” which was part of her work as a Gorilla Foundation employee.
“Sometimes they did,” Sommers finished, “but more often, they failed to kennel the large pit bull.”
Max in photos & captions
The Gorilla Foundation on March 12, 2010 posted a portfolio of photographs of dogs who had lived there, or were still there.
A photo of Max, taken by Cohn on March 28, 2001, was captioned “Max, one of two dogs who live on the grounds, is an excellent watchdog with a sweet personality.”
Behind Max was a heap of debris including an old tire, one or more plastic bottles, and apparent carpet scraps.
The caption beneath a second photo of Max, taken by Cohn on February 25, 2002, asserted, “Max is friend to human and gorilla alike, and a fine watchdog. He loves to play chase with Ndume from outside the play yard.”
The caption under a third photo of Max, taken by Cohn on April 21, 2003, asserted that “Max, Koko and Ndume’s male watchdog and playmate, is one of the smartest dogs we’ve ever met,” who “does things that imply he may have a deeper understanding of spoken English than one would expect of a dog.
“For example,” the caption continued, “he placed himself in an ‘alternate’ indoor dog house for the first time ever, after overhearing Ron say ‘I wonder why Max never uses the other dog house.’ Perhaps when you specialize in formal interspecies communication research with gorillas, you tend to pay more attention to the cognitive capabilities of other species.”
“Doggy language board”
Patterson photographed Max on January 21, 2004, describing him in her caption as “a 7-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier that guards and plays chase with gorillas Koko and Ndume,” who in the photo “stands next to the ‘doggy language board’ at the Gorilla Foundation.”
The “doggy language board” appears to be a bulletin board with index card-sized labels naming various things that might be of interest to a dog. As a simple matter of odds, practically anything named that a dog might nose at any given time might interest the dog if offered.
“Like Koko,” Patterson said, “while Max is very powerful (a perfect companion for a gorilla), he can also be extremely sweet and gentle with those he considers family. And while Max’s bark can sometimes jangle the nerves of humans, it seems to delight the gorillas.”
“Sentimental” Max didn’t “kill” toy Dalmatian
A fourth Cohn photo of Max, taken on February 17, 2007, posted under the headline “Dogs can be sentimental too!”, is captioned “Max usually destroys his stuffed animal toys. However, this time he chose to protect this tiny stuffed Dalmatian.”
Other dogs shown include Apple, long deceased, said to have been “a herding dog of a different ilk,” who “herded gorillas rather than sheep, and did so much to the gorillas’ delight.”
The gorilla Michael is said to have “painted Apple in the midst of such an exuberant ‘chase,’ a game they would play by running back and forth on either side of the gorilla enclosure. While painting Apple,” it is said, “Michael had available to him a full range of colors, but intentionally limited his palette to shades of gray to accurately portray his dear friend.”
“Head of Canine Security”
Photographed on March 24, 2004 was “German shepherd Flower,” described as “the Gorilla Foundation’s ‘Head of Canine Security’ for quite a few years now.”
Rikki Power, a possible pit bull mix photographed on April 26, 2006, was introduced as “the first dog that Koko has ever really liked having around almost as much as a kitten,” also described as “an excellent gorilla playmate for one of their favorite games, ‘chase.’ She stays outside the mesh, of course. And yes, she even responds to some sign language commends, like sit, stay, down, and come, and uses a language board to convey important needs.”
The pit bull Redd, introduced as “Redd Budda,” was introduced in an undated photo, with Rikki Power, as “The latest incarnations of the Gorilla Foundation’s Canine Gorilla Team. Both dogs enjoy greeting the gorillas every morning with friendly barks and playing ‘chase’ with Ndume,” the caption said.
“They’re also quite smart,” the caption added, “and have both mastered our new Dog Language Board, which allows them to communicate with us more clearly than via barking alone.”
Discussion of the Safkow account of how Patterson suffered a broken hip led on the “Ndume The Gorilla Deserves Better” Facebook page to questions about the Gorilla Foundation evacuation procedures, if any, for the gorillas in event of fire.
The “reality” television show Monster Garage in 2004 depicted customizer Jesse James and team converting a 2001 Toyota Tundra into “Koko the Gorilla’s personal transport vehicle.”
But the so-called Gorilla Mobile was apparently rarely if ever used, and may no longer be useable.
Said Safkow, “Koko’s ride still sits in the driveway with coyote pee-soaked rags placed in and around the outer body and wheel wells to keep the rats out.”
Customizer Jesse James had pit bull issues too
Jesse James subsequently had his own issues involving pit bulls.
“Reportedly, Jesse James allowed two of his pit bulls to fight to the death. But while one blog claims Jesse James took them to a dog fighting ring,” online celebrity gossip columnist Zennie Abraham wrote on April 1, 2010, “another says that’s not true and that James’ dogs Cisco and Rudy got into a fight while James was not present. The unsupervised battle cost Rudy his life.”
April 1, 2010 happened to be April Fool’s Day.
Monster Garage attack
But more than a year later, another online celebrity gossip columnist, Josh Grossberg, wrote that “E! News has learned that a pit bull owned by the Monster Garage host in his Austin, Texas, motorcycle shop got loose and attacked another pooch, nearly sending it to doggie heaven.
“Per a spokesman with Austin Animal Control,” Grossman claimed, “James’ pet happened on a Corgi named Buckley and sank its fangs into the poor fella’s neck before police called to the scene managed to separate the two. Buckley’s owner also came to his dog’s defense, punching the pit bull in its face until it gave up.
“The mauled pup was rushed to a nearby veterinary hospital,” Grossman continued. “TMZ [a tabloid news web site] reported that the owner subsequently reached James’ assistant, who gave him $250 to pay for the medical bill. The American Outlaw has also vowed to cover any additional expenses.”
TMZ coverage confirmed the Grossman account.
I suppose because they are so overrepresented in the homeless pet population and
so easy to get, pit bulls seem to be very common at sanctuaries and other animal facilities. And of course, post cutesy images of pits on social media or engage in pit promoting, and you have a ready-made fanbase of breed devotees who will pat you on the back and share your content, even though they most likely don’t care at all about the main mission of your group.
I’ve already written on here about a social media star farm animal rescue that recently trumpeted its bringing in a pit bull that had been returned to the shelter multiple times. The rescue’s social media account became a flood of images of the pit posed with special needs/geriatric farm animals. It broke my heart to do so, but I unfollowed them. A very similar thing happened at a less well-known farm animal sanctuary in my state–only they had a group of pit bulls.
I’ve long wondered about the parade of cats and kittens who seem to be entering the Gorilla Foundation. What happens to them? This revelation should concern us even more….could you imagine a dog like “Redd” being around cats?