Bye bye, have fun

I accidentally saw the last few minutes of the everlasting CBS news show 60 Minutes last night, and was horrified. It was about one Damian Aspinall and his Exciting Adventure of taking some captive-raised gorillas to Africa and abandoning them there. At the end Leslie Stahl said, “I wish we could end on an optimistic note but we can’t. A month later all five adult females were found dead” and so was the one juvenile.

Five adult female gorillas killed by the actions of their “owner” – a critically endangered species. I went incandescent with rage. I know, I’m always doing that, but then I’m always being given reasons, aren’t I.

I used to work up close and personal with gorillas at the zoo.

Daily Kos has a story.

A report on 60 Minutes this evening described the plight of British aristocrat Damian Aspinall, whose father raised a private menagerie of lowland gorillas. After his father died, he came to the conclusion that keeping wild animals in a zoo was wrong and cruel to animals. To rectify his father’s error, he decided to send gorillas that had been raised in Britain to Gabon in West Africa. Among those he sent were a troop of eleven gorillas whom had trained in a “gorilla school” to prepare them for the wild.

Five out of the eleven died within a month of being released.

“Private menagerie” gives a slightly misleading impression. Howletts (that’s what it’s called, and there’s another branch at and called Port Lympne) is open to the public, and it has had huge success getting gorillas to breed and raise the young. I once went to Howletts, in 1986, soon after I stopped working at the Woodland Park Zoo (where I’d worked for six years). The gorillas were impressive. They had a huge enclosure full of stuff to do, and there were babies and youngsters galore. Howletts at that time had more gorilla births than any other zoo in the world, as far as I know. Most zoos would rejoice at one, and Howletts had several every year.

But Howletts had its problems. It had a bad name among zoo keepers, because John Aspinall had a firm policy that keepers had to be hands-on with the animals, and the result was that not one but two keepers were killed by tigers. We thought that was very uncool.

And then, of course, Howletts is captivity, and there’s plenty of controversy about keeping animals in captivity for entertainment and/or education, and the “private” status of Howletts meant he didn’t have to live up to rules or expectations that govern non-private zoos. So there are issues. But I don’t know of anybody who knows anything about the subject who thinks it’s a fabulous idea to raise animals in captivity and then take them to Gabon and drop them there. It’s fucking criminal, is what it is.

If you want a precedent, you can check out what happened to Lucy. It’s disgusting.

After Stahl said the adult females and one youngster were dead, there was a bit with Aspinall talking to the camera, saying if the gorillas all died his detractors would be overjoyed but he didn’t care, because blah blah blah. Well it’s not about him, it’s about them, so he should care!

Just from watching the 60 Minutes report, it was clear that this effort was doomed from the start. However well intentioned Aspinall may have been, expecting animals raised by humans to survive in the jungle was naïve bordering upon stupid. Gorilla experts such as those at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund warned that gorillas, being susceptible to shock when their surroundings were changed, would not do well in the wild after spending twenty years being cared for by people. Aspinall brushed off their advice, saying that only a “maverick” like himself could solve the problem of animal captivity.

However, the report quickly revealed the flaws in Aspinall’s plan. One video included in the story showed Aspinall reuniting with one of his favorite gorillas, Kwibi. Kwibi rushed out to see what was happening the minute he heard Aspinall’s boat nearby. As charming as the reunion may have been, rushing towards signs of human activity is extremely dangerous for a gorilla in the wild, given the threat posed by poachers. Furthermore, Kwibi, after meeting with Aspinall again, refused to let him go when he tried to leave. This was not the reaction of a wild animal, but of a domesticated animal that has been abandoned in the wild.

Furthermore, although the trainers at the “gorilla school” tried to teach the gorillas survival skills, to lure the animals into the wild they had to provide them with food. Associating humans with food is probably the best way to get a wild animal killed.

And it’s just fucking cruel. It’s like taking 4-year-old children to Gabon and abandoning them in the wilderness.

I’m amazed and horrified that no one was able to prevent him from doing this, and I seriously hope someone can prevent him from doing it to any more gorillas…which is his plan.


  1. Sili says

    It’s like taking 4-year-old children to Gabon and abandoning them in the wilderness.

    I’d watch that.

  2. iknklast says

    Even when trained experts do captive animal release into the wild, there is only about a 10% success rate. This is also one reason why it’s so ignorant of animal activists to just release laboratory or farm animals – they will have a lot of problems surviving.

    I share your incandescence – and agree that there are way too many things happening that lead to that.

  3. lorn says

    Aspinall has a point about the animals, in this case gorillas, being 1) not here for our amusement and 2) better off in the context of their natural habitat. That said, I think he went too far when he assumes zoo animals should go back to the wilderness. His intentions are good but the methodology leaves a lot to be desired. Guerrillas in their intact habitat have to be give priority for protection. The guerrillas lost were not from the wild and are not associated with habitat loss. While it is tragic that any were lost the fact is that birth of guerrillas in zoos is not exceedingly rare. Producing more from zoos is simply a matter of logistics and investment of time, money and effort. Producing wild guerrillas in a viable habitat is not so simple.

    The greatest threats to wild species are habitat loss and poaching. The first would seem to imply that the available natural habitat is already occupied and that territorial pressures are strong enough to be deadly, and are going to bring any added animals into this deadly competition. This seems to have been the fate of the released gorillas. The second observation point out that what habitat still exists is not tightly controlled. If it was poachers would not be an issue.

    Losses of wild guerrillas and their natural habitat are not being made good. Once gone the history seems to tell us that the habitat, and the inhabitants, are gone forever. This is something Aspinall could usefully put his considerable resources to work on.

    IMHO the best solution for the issue would seem to be for Aspinall to concentrate on establishing, maintaining, and protecting habitat. When and if he can establish and maintain a protected habitat large enough that guerrilla territory-sized portions of it are entirely unoccupied by any gorillas he can bring in zoo raised animals to take up the slack. While this wouldn’t guarantee their acceptance the lack of strong competition for territory and resources should make the process far less stressful for their wild counterparts and less likely they will act violently.

  4. says

    territorial pressures are strong enough to be deadly, and are going to bring any added animals into this deadly competition.

    Oh, please, these apes had no idea of how to find lunch. They likely did not know how to build a bed/nest in a tree, either. Their water-finding skills were certainly deficient as well. No food; no shelter; no water: dead in less than a month seems about right.

    The emotional cruelty of abandoning these sapients to “the wild” is beyond the pale.

  5. lorn says

    Silentbob @6:
    My spell checked defaulted to the later and I went with it. Thanks for highlighting the difference. I tend toward more phonetic flexibility, Jefferson was quoted as saying: “You should never trust a man who has only one way to spell a word.”, but you’re right.

    Kamaka @5:
    The gorillas were released, at first, onto an island in the middle of a river where food was provided and had lived on the island for months before the bridge allowing hem to get off the island was completed with a few planks. It is hard to see how water would be an issue because the river was right there and they were filmed drinking.

    Aspinall , for all his faults, didn’t strike me as a complete idiot. I assume that he had observed them handle the necessities of nesting and foraging. Although I suspect that food was still being provided and plans were that they would be tapered off. I don’t know the specifics but the reports seems to indicate they died violently, likely a the hands of a rival male.

  6. says

    lorn @ 5 – ugh. Jesus. They weren’t “lost”; Aspinall took them there and they were killed. He didn’t “lose” them. He put them in a very dangerous situation and then left.

    And you’re completely wrong about how easy it is to breed gorillas in zoos. It’s far from easy. It’s not at all just a matter of “logistics.” That kind of thinking is why breeding totally failed for years and years.

  7. says

    The gorillas were released, at first, onto an island in the middle of a river

    Exactly my point. How well do you think you would do in similar circumstances? The apes’ internal biota were not equipped to drink river water, in fact I would rate that as a prime factor in their death rate. A serious case of the shits is not conducive to survival in a very difficult environment. Feces on their butts would attract much insect attention, particularly if they can’t build an appropriate nest. And diarrhea dehydrates, leading them to drink more of what ails them. If they were indeed attacked by an ape (on an island?), they were easy victims, being weakened or seriously ill. The apes likely also took on a huge parasite load drinking river water. I was inadvertantly fed just a small bit of river-water in the Philippines. Symptoms in six hours, not deathly ill but debilitated, six weeks to recover. And I only ingested it once.

  8. lorn says

    Ophelia Benson @10:
    The term “lost” obviously doesn’t resonate with your strong feelings. I use the term much like one might speaking to a bereaved widow at the funeral ‘I feel sorry for you loss’, even if the person was murdered. I have a hard tome getting emotional about such things simply because these sorts of tragedies are so common, gorillas are dying in the wild by the dozen, typically gunned down for their meat, but also because emotional responses do no good.

    I’ve seen more than my share of suffering and tragedy and cried myself out forty years ago. Emotion may help in some situations but in this sort of case, where the key problems are habitat loss, a lack of protection, and people living in remote areas lacking other sources of affordable protein; they are a distraction. It is easy to get the emotional response with pictures of cute and very photogenic gorilla babies combined with the news that they were killed, But ten minutes later people are checking their e-mails and tweeting about what they had for dinner. Catharsis is not nearly enough if this problem is going to be solved, instead of just being sobbed over.

    Yes, producing gorilla babies in zoos is pretty much a matter of will, funding and logistics. Nothing magical about it. This is bioengineering. Research has already shown that the same techniques used to boost human fertility works on gorillas. That IVF and fetal transplant with gorillas are entirely practicable. It also seems that transplant to mothers of other species, commonly practiced with other animals, seem to be just a matter of investing the money and time to prove and perfect.

    Anyone wanting baby gorillas can produce them in any numbers they wish and have resources to produce. Particularly if we don’t insist upon traditional breeding. It is just a matter of bringing all the components, like funding and gorillas, together. That is the definition of a logistical problem. The US spends over two billion dollars, total cost and support materials, on a single B-2 bomber. Drop two billion dollars on producing gorillas and you end up with a whole lot of baby gorillas. Once you produce a few the whole process becomes streamlined and, as with any industrial process, the per unit costs plummet. Irony being that the reason B-2s are so expensive comes down to the fact that we only bought 21 production units.

    Unfortunately producing health infant gorillas doesn’t mean they are complete and healthy. The argument can be made that the only completely healthy gorillas are those living in the wild because the environment and species mesh together. Gorillas bred in zoos are subtly different, even as they are the same species. If anything Aspinall’s experiment was proof of this.

    We can produce baby gorillas for zoos. We know how. The same cannot be said about producing wild gorillas in a functioning habitat. We don’t know how to that and that is where the resources have to be applied. If a few gorillas have to die for Aspinall and other wealthy people to dedicate serious funding to protecting habitat it will have been worth it. We don’t have the time or energy to spare crying over the losses. We have to learn quickly and press on. If gorillas in the wild become extinct we will have all eternity to cry.

    Kamaka @ 11:
    It seems likely that you have not seen the 60 minutes piece. The gorillas were on the island a good time, I don’t know how long but weeks seem likely, and they were drinking from the river and exposed to the regional biota for all that time. The gorillas were not showing signs of being anything but healthy and happy when the bridge was completed.

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