The algebra of zoo management is Harambe times X-number equals what amount of public outrage cutting into profits?
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands––Is the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria heading full speed toward the 2016 Harambe debacle at the Cincinnati Zoo times a dozen?
Or a hundred? Or any number in between?
Did someone among the 340 EAZA members in 41 nations leak internal discussion of killing surplus zoo gorillas to Helena Horton of The Guardian to prevent a gorilla massacre potentially bigger than any on record inflicted by poachers?
Or is it all about money, or selling the public on cutting their nuts off?
Or is the leaked suggestion of killing “genetically redundant” western lowland gorillas just a cynical ploy to extract more money from donors and governments for building gorilla exhibits at some of the 80% of EAZA member zoos that presently do not have either gorillas or facilities suitable for housing them?
Alternatively, is the hint that zoo gorillas might be culled meant to make the European public more accepting of castrating some males as an alternative to contraception, an alternative the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria has for decades resisted in the belief that contraception might interfere with natural behavior?
As if natural gorilla behavior occurs anyway in concrete and steel confinement 5,000 miles or more from the nearest natural gorilla habitat, which is in the equatorial climatic zone, whereas much of the European climate more closely resembles that of the southern Arctic Circle.
Testing advocacy after Shirley McGreal died?
Perhaps more far-fetched, but not implausible in view of some past zoo community attempts to shape public opinion in their favor, is that the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria is testing the strength of primate advocacy, following the November 20, 2021 death of 87-year-old International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal.
McGreal could and would have overnight mobilized global support in militant opposition to any suggestion of “euthanizing” either gorillas or any other primates for zoo population control. Very few zoo directors cared to tangle with her. Some zoo directors who did ended up exposed to the point of losing their jobs and even landing in jail for wildlife trafficking, embezzling, and corruption.
What the world knows, for the moment, is that Helena Horton on November 26, 2021 reported that “Overcrowding of critically endangered western lowland gorillas in zoos has led the influential European Association of Zoos & Aquaria,” which accredits zoos in Europe, “to consider killing adult males of the species.
“Leaked documents seen by the Guardian,” Horton wrote, “reveal that culling, castration and keeping adult single males in solitary confinement for a large portion of their lives are seen as potential solutions to an overpopulation of the species in zoos.
“The gorilla population in EAZA zoos,” Horton summarized, “consists of 463 individuals (212 males, 250 females and one infant of unknown sex) at 69 institutions.
“The gorilla action plan, released to stakeholders in zoos,” Horton said, suggests that culling would be “the most appropriate tool if strictly talking from the biological point of view.”
Illegal––if the laws are enforced
However, the document added, according to Horton, to state that “The main downside of this option is that it is controversial in many countries and in some illegal, in specific circumstances.”
Indeed, culling western lowland gorillas might well be interpreted as illegal by the courts of any of the 41 nations hosting European Association of Zoos & Aquaria member facilities, all of which are members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES], a treaty brokered by the United Nations.
Western lowland gorillas are a CITES Appendix I species, recognized as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The wild population is believed to have fallen by 60% or more just during the first two decades of the 21st century.
Continued the EAZA document, according to Horton, “Any discussion on culling can quickly become emotional because it is easy to empathize with gorillas. This carries a high risk that an emotional response by the public and/or zoo staff and keepers, catalyzed by social media, inflicts damage to zoos and aquariums.”
That may have been an understatement. At least 1.6 million web sites published approximately 16 million messages of protest after Cincinnati Zoo personnel on May 28, 2016 shot Harambe, a western lowland gorilla silverback male, who swung a four-year-old boy by the feet, his head missing a concrete moat wall by inches.
The four-year-old fell into a moat only weeks before the entire gorilla exhibit was to be closed and replaced, as it subsequently was.
(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.)
Noted Horton, “Western lowland gorillas are the smallest of the four gorilla subspecies. Tests on one lowland gorilla found an IQ of between 70 and 90 – the average IQ for humans on many tests is 100, and most people score somewhere between 85 and 115.”
Horton did not mention where zookeepers score.
Since western lowland gorillas are established crowd-pleasers, and since 271 European Association of Zoos & Aquaria member institutions do not currently have gorillas, one might expect that the time needed to raise construction funds and do the work would be the only major obstacles to transferring “surplus” gorillas to other EAZA members.
However, many EAZA members may have become apprehensive of accommodating gorillas after a September 27, 2020 attack by Malabo, a 380-pound western lowland gorilla silverback, 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.
The assault on the 19-year zoo employee appeared to be from ambush, without provocation.
Other keepers saved the injured woman’s life by driving Malabo back with fire extinguishers.
Contrary to the gentle public image of gorillas, reality is that while they are vegetarians, they are not pacifists, and not particularly gentle in the wild toward even their own kin.
Explained 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.”
This was a lesson learned the hard way by British conservationist and rewilder Damian Aspinall, 59, who in June 2000 inherited the Howlett’s and Port Lympne zoos in Kent, England, from his father, gambling and zookeeping entrepreneur John Aspinall (1926-2000).
Raised with western lowland gorillas for playmates, Damian Aspinall has since 1999 released approximately 80 gorillas born at his zoos into the Lesio-Louna Reserve, north of Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo.
Damian Aspinall counts 70 of the gorilla releases as successes, with a 95% survival rate and 30 births among them. But all five adult females in a family of six captive-raised gorillas whom he released in 2014 were killed within days by a rogue silverback he had released about a decade earlier, who had failed to find a mate and start a family.
Willing to try re-wilding with Euro gorillas
Despite that disaster, Damian Aspinall told Horton that the Aspinall Foundation would be quite willing to try to re-wild any “surplus” gorillas whom European Association of Zoos & Aquaria members care to send him.
“It’s a sad day for the zoological community,” Damian Aspinall said, “when they are considering culling gorillas when there is a great opportunity to re-wild gorillas.”
Agreed primatologist Ian Redmond, “In my view, it is wrong on many levels to castrate or kill a healthy gorilla for human convenience. Not only is the western lowland gorilla a critically endangered species, protected by national and international law, but all great apes are autonomous beings who deserve our respect.
“Perhaps in the UN decade of ecosystem restoration, which starts this year,” Redmond told Horton, “zoos could follow the lead of the Aspinall Foundation and put the gardeners of the forest back where they belong.”
Prof seeks middle ground
University of East Anglia primatologist and professor of evolutionary biology Ben Garrod looked for middle ground.
“The last thing anyone serious about conservation and welfare wants is to discuss culls,” Garrod acknowledged to Horton, “but they can serve a function in some situations. Introducing any large mammal to the wild comes with so many considerations and difficulties, and great apes are an especially risky group,” Garrod said.
“Great apes, such as gorillas, are able to pick up many of the diseases our own species carries,” Garrod explained, “and if [those diseases]were introduced into wild gorilla populations, the effects would be devastating. Similarly, animals being introduced into the wild need a habitat away from humans, and away from other gorillas ideally, partly to reduce conflict and partly to reduce any possible infection or disease spread.
“We do not have the right to treat them as surplus stock”
“Realistically, there isn’t an abundance of such pristine suitable habitat out there – that’s part of the original problem,” Garrod said, referring to the decline of western lowland gorillas in the wild, which is attributed to the combination of habitat loss to logging, road-building, and mineral extraction, with poaching and outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus.
“I’d ask why any zoo is able to breed so many gorillas that a cull is even considered necessary,” Garrod continued. “Do we cull the babies or old animals or excess males? These are social, sentient and cultured animals. We do not have the right to treat them as surplus stock in this way. To breed animals like this without a sustainable and ethical outcome is reckless to say the least, and needs to be addressed.”
Finished Horton, “A spokesperson for the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria admitted that culling was part of their gorilla management plan, but added that under suitable conditions, they might support re-wilding of the primates.”
EAZA hints that it is all about the balls
However, EAZA hedged in a prepared statement, “Given that wild habitats for lowland gorilla are increasingly scarce and mostly at full carrying capacity, any responsible ex situ conservation programme must make contingency plans to keep the population as genetically and demographically diverse as possible, while maintaining good animal welfare.
“So far, no gorillas have been culled, and we are currently not recommending the use of culling,” the EAZA statement continued, “this is unlikely to change over the short to medium term.”
Segued the EAZA spokesperson, hinting that winning public acceptance of castrating male gorillas may have been the aim all along, “It is very common practice for veterinarians worldwide to carry out castrations on mammals precisely to ensure sustainable populations of animals and good social order between them.”
U.S. zoos also close to full
Exporting gorillas from European Association of Zoos & Aquaria member institutions to U.S. facilities accredited by the [American] Association of Zoos & Aquariums is theoretically possible, but most U.S. zoos with gorilla exhibits are already at or approaching capacity.
U.S. zoos currently house about 340 western lowland gorillas. Captive breeding of western lowland gorillas in the U.S. has been so successful since the first zoo birth in 1956 that the Association of Zoos & Aquariums boasts “No gorillas have been directly imported from the wild into North American zoos since 1972.”
1972, coincidentally was the year that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species came into effect.
A further concern for European Association of Zoos & Aquaria members may be that at least two U.S. zoos have had COVID-19 outbreaks among gorillas, though the risk to the species from a gorilla contracting COVID-19 should logically be less than the risk from a gorilla being either killed or castrated.
Gorillas get, & recover from, COVID-19
Two of the eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido, California, were found to have become infected in February 2021. Both recovered without infecting others.
At least 18 of the 20 western lowland gorillas at Zoo Atlanta either showed clinical symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 in September 2021. They also recovered
The major lesson for conservationists from the San Diego Zoo and Zoo Atlanta outbreaks of COVID-19 among gorillas should be that gorillas in the wild, if ever infected, are also likely to recover.
Fear that wild gorillas eventually will be exposed to COVID-19 was whetted when Ugandan conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, founder of the organization Conservation Through Public Health, found that a rule requiring human visitors to gorilla habitat to stay at least 21 feet from gorillas was broken during approximately 98% of all visits.
Reported Kalema-Zikusoka, “60% of the time it was tourists who broke it, and 40% of the time it was the gorillas who broke it.”
Henry et al, Marius, & Cub 5
Meanwhile, discussion of the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria suggestion that “surplus” gorillas should be killed revived public debate that flared in 2014 over the killings of a lion named Henry, a lioness named Louisa, and four of her cubs at the Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, the United Kingdom; the killing of a “surplus” giraffes named Marius at the Copenhagen Zoo, who was then publicly dissected as part of an “educational” exhibit; and the killing of a healthy baby bear called Cub 5 at the Dahlholzli Zoo in Bern, Switzerland. Cub 5 was then exhibited as a taxidermically mounted specimen.
“The European Association of Zoos & Aquaria does not publish these records or advertise the number of healthy animals who have been culled,” reported Hannah Barnes for BBC News in February 2014, “but EAZA executive director Lesley Dickie estimates that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are “management-euthanized” in European zoos in any given year.
“Tadpoles up to a giraffe”
“That’s our estimate for all animals management-euthanized in the zoo, be it tadpoles up to a giraffe,” Dickie said, adding that the numbers of large mammals would probably be “less than a few hundred.”
Barnes learned of the killings of five giraffes by Denmark zoos during the preceding 17 months, along with hippos killed in Portugal, Spain, Germany and Denmark, 22 healthy zebras killed by zoos between 2000 and 2012, and 11 Arabian oryx were “killed in Edinburgh, London, Rotterdam and Zurich between 2000 and 2009, plus dozens more at zoos in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
The zebras and oryx were killed to be fed to carnivores kept by the zoos in question.
“The EAZA Yearbook 2007/2008,” Barnes continued, “the latest publicly available edition, states clearly that a ‘breed and cull’ policy should be followed for some animals, like the pygmy hippopotamus. Surpluses are a problem with a number of species, including monkeys and baboons, it notes. So, unless European zoos adopt the American practice of using contraception to prevent the birth of surplus animals, culling is here to stay.”
German keepers prosecuted
Offered Simon Tonge, executive director of South West Environmental Parks, operating the Paignton and Newquay zoos in Britain, “If we ever got to the point of having to consider euthanasia for a gorilla, I would argue that that one gorilla would generate more interest and more column inches than 10,000 rats. So the numbers game for me is kind of irrelevant.”
The one significant development in opposition to zoo culling was the June 17, 2010 conviction of Magdeburg Zoo director Kai Parret and three members of his staff for cruelty to animals, after they killed three tiger cubs at birth in May 2008 because their father was found to be a hybrid of the Siberian and Sumatran tiger subspecies.
A fine of 8,100 euros was suspended on condition that the offense not be repeated.
The charges were brought at request of the German pro-animal organizations Animal Public and People for Animal Rights/ Germany.