Opened in 1972, “new” zoo was already obsolete
MADRID, Spain––A brutal reminder of the realities of gorillas, zoos, and keeping wildlife in starkly unnatural conditions on September 27, 2020 left a 46-year-old female zookeeper with multiple fractures, head and chest trauma, and compound fractures of both arms at the Zoo Aquarium de Madrid, in the capital city of Spain.
Malabo, the 380-pound western lowland gorilla assailant, reportedly attacked the keeper––a 19-year zoo employee––as soon as she entered the habitat through a drive-in-only gateway with triple security doors, at approximately 10:30 a.m.
The gorilla “was getting ready to eat his breakfast and attacked when he was surprised by the worker,” a Zoo Aquarium de Madrid spokesperson told the Spanish news agency Efe, summarized Olive Press digital editor Laurence Dollimore.
Olive Press, a digital periodical, serves the English-speaking expatriate population in Spain.
Fire extinguishers saved the keeper
“The security protocol was immediately activated, which saw several workers drive the gorilla away with the use of fire extinguishers,” wrote Dollimore.
“After rescuing their colleague, the employees shot the animal with a dart containing anesthetics. The zoo said the evidence points to a ‘human failure’ as workers should have taken care not to surprise Malabo before feeding,” Dollimore added.
Born at the Zoo Aquarium de Madrid on November 28, 1991, Malabo was the youngest and is the last survivor among four gorillas sired by his father, Bioko.
Bioko, captured from the wild, arrived as an infant in 1980, as did Malabo’s mother, Nadia.
Bioko died in 2002, but Nadia at last report was still alive and was the matriarch of a family of eight gorillas residing at the Cabarceno Nature Park, located in a former open-pit iron mine in Cabarceno, Obregon state, Spain.
Did not use full strength?
Malabo is the silverback of a family group including six other gorillas, one of them his sister Gwet.
Said the unidentified Zoo Aquarium de Madrid spokesperson, “Malabo shook her [the injured keeper], but without using all of his enormous strength.”
The zoo-going public loves the myth, largely created by mountain gorilla researcher Dian Fossey (1932-1985) in her 1983 best-selling book Gorillas In The Mist, that gorillas are harmless gentle giants.
Apart from western lowland gorillas like Malabo being a different albeit closely related species, the reality of both mountain and western lowland gorilla behavior is that while they are vegetarians, they are not pacifists, and not particularly gentle in the wild toward even their own kin.
Harambe & Ndume
Explains a 2013 paper by seven primatologists, Impact of Male Infanticide on the Social Structure of Mountain Gorillas , “infanticide victims represented up to 5.5% of the offspring born during the study, and they accounted for up to 21% of infant mortality.”
Malabo was returned to his quarters after the attack on the keeper, and eventually to his family group.
Thus the Zoo Aquarium de Madrid escaped a public relations fiasco such as beset the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, 2016, after a four-year-old boy fell into a moat surrounding an obsolescent gorilla exhibit that was already slated for replacement and has since been replaced.
(See The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, Part I, 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.)
The Cincinnati Zoo has subsequently regained favor among many animal advocates for reclaiming Ndume, 38, from the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California.
Rejected by Koko
Sent to the Gorilla Foundation in 1991 as a potential mate for the late signing gorilla Koko (1971-2018), Ndume spent 28 years in solitary confinement after Koko rejected him.
Meanwhile, the boy’s fall into the Cincinnati Zoo moat led about 10 minutes later to the shooting death of the zoo’s best-known and most popular animal, the male silverback gorilla Harambe, whose 17th birthday had been marked by public celebration just one day earlier.
Descending into the moat after the boy, Harambe repeatedly swung the boy by the heels, his head within inches of slamming into the concrete walls.
Jambo & Binti Jua
Much of the outrage over the shooting involved social media postings that often garbled recollections of two similar incidents, in which a five-year-old boy fell into a gorilla exhibit at the Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey, Channel Islands, United Kingdom, on August 31, 1986, and a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla den at the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, on March 17, 1988.
In the Durrell Wildlife Park case, a male gorilla named Jambo stood over the fallen child and stroked his back until he began to cry. Jambo and several other gorillas then retreated. Jambo had parenting experience, but had not been formally trained in child care.
In the Brookfield Zoo case, an 8-year-old female gorilla named Binti Jua who had been trained in child care, and was carrying her own baby on her back, picked up the unconscious fallen boy and remained with him until her keepers opened a door to approach. Binti Jua at that point left the boy and retreated.
Legacy of the former Spanish empire
The Zoo Aquarium de Madrid meanwhile already had an often problematic almost 250-year history to live down, beginning in 1774, when King Charles III (1716-1788) kept a small menagerie in the gardens of his Buen Retiro Palace alongside the Cuesta de Moyano, the road that has more recently become the intellectual center of Madrid.
Charles III, noted for obsessive hunting earlier in life, had at age 57 apparently become more interested in observing animals than in killing them. He had the royal fleet bring back macaws, toucans, ocelots, pumas, snakes, alligators, monkeys of several species, and even an elephant from remote corners of the Spanish empire, then extending to Latin America, the Philippines, Mexico, Cuba, and what are now seven states in the U.S. Southwest.
As the menagerie grew, it was relocated into a two-story octagonal structure called La Leonera, modeled after the animal housing built for French King Louis XIV’s menagerie at his palace in Versailles.
Hosted animal fights
The cages forming the ground floor of La Leonera housed at various times several lions, tigers, pumas, two hyenas, and a jackal.
The predator cages surrounded the habitat for herbivores, including deer, gazelles, llamas, and ostriches.
Much like the menagerie kept by British monarchs for 500 years at the Tower of London, ancestral to the London Zoo, La Leonera pitted the more dangerous resident species against fighting bulls, dogs, and each other as royal entertainment.
Many of animals who survived the routine mayhem at La Leonera died from neglect and mistreatment during the Napoleonic wars, including a five-year occupation by French troops (1808-1813).
“House of Fairies”
Rebuilt during the royal reigns of King Ferdinand VII and Isabella II, the zoo became known as La Casa de Fieras (House of Fairies). The facilities were eventually formally renamed the Royal Cabinet of Natural Sciences, but continued to be known as La Casa de Fieras for more than a century.
Following the Revolution of 1868, which overthrew Isabella II, the entire Parque del Buen Retiro, including the zoo, was opened to the public for the first time, and was managed by the Madrid city government until 1884.
The zoo management was then contracted out to circus trainer Luis Cabañas.
Cabañas promoted fights between zoo animals and bulls in bull rings throughout Spain.
The fights were stopped by law after a tiger and bull crashed through a fence in San Sebastian, killing one person and seriously injuring 17 others.
Prisoners fed to carnivores
Cabañas also drew crowds to daily public baths of an elephant named Pizarro, in honor of the Spanish conqueror of Peru. The public baths ended after the elephant escaped one day and rampaged through nearby Madrid, fortunately not killing anyone.
The Cabañas era ended, after 34 years, on December 31, 1918.
Under successor Cecilio Rodriguez the Zoo de Madrid prospered and expanded, but Rodriguez was dismissed during the political upheaval that followed the 1931 abdication under pressure of King Alfonzo XIII.
The ensuing Spanish Civil War (1936−1939) brought the slaughter of many zoo animals for human consumption, and the deaths of many more animals from starvation, though several dozen prisoners captured by the victorious fascist faction were reputedly fed alive to the big cats.
Dolphinarium target of protest
Put back in charge of the Zoo de Madrid after the war, Rodriguez rebuilt the animal collection by housing animals evacuated from the Berlin and Munich zoos.
The current city-owned zoo replaced the old Casa de Fieras in 1972, and is now managed by the international entertainment company Parques Reunidos, which operates more than 60 theme parks worldwide, including nine other zoos and the Miami Seaquarium.
A giant panda exhibit opened in 1978, the aquarium, added in 1995, and the gorilla enclosure remain the major attractions, along with a dolphinarium opened in 1987.
Now holding nine dolphins, the dolphinarium has in recent years been a target of protest by European members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.