Here are the facts. While his parents weren’t looking, a small boy accidentally fell into the moat of a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. The gorilla showed great interest in the boy, who was conscious. He made as if to protect and guard the boy. Keepers and a member of an ambulance crew entered the enclosure and removed the boy. The gorilla kept its distance. No animals were harmed in the making of this new story.
It happened in 1986, at Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of the same name, these days rebranded Durrell Wildlife Park after its famous founder, conservationist Gerald Durrell (whose early life was recently dramatised on ITV in The Durrells). I happened to be in Jersey that summer, working on a bursary art project and capturing the holiday island in drawings, photographs and collages. I wasn’t at the zoo on that day – although had been in the course of my research – but it was big news, nationally and internationally. To me it all felt very local, and I painted a picture of the 25-year-old male gorilla Jambo protecting the five-year-old male human, Levan Merritt, which I wish I had access to. With YouTube, social media, citizen journalism and mobile phones still years into the next century, it’s amazing that this potentially dangerous event was captured at all, but it was, thanks to an American with a camcorder from the future. (An American news report has been loaded to YouTube here. It’s quite distressing to watch, as the spectators are powerless to help and the poor boy is clearly in pain and distress from the fall, but Jambo behaves impeccably. A simian babysitter.
I don’t know if it’s just health-and-safety culture, or American fear of litigation or bad publicity in the iPhone age, but things played out very differently at Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday when the exact same thing happened. This time, it was a four-year-old, who also slipped into the moat while his parents weren’t looking and was immediately attended to by Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla. It’s interesting to compare the Cincinnati phone footage to the Jersey film. In both cases, the ape reacts the same way, with curiosity and an apparent protectiveness. In Cincinnati, onlookers squeal and overreact, as if they’re on America’s Got Talent. In Jersey, in the mid-80s, they remain stoic and calm, and it’s only when the boy starts to cry that his mother becomes hysterical in her helplessness – ironically, the boy’s cries send the gorillas away, leaving the paramedic and keepers to step in. In Cincinnati, of course, the endangered silverback was shot dead.
I was captivated by animals as a boy. As such, I was captivated by zoos, where I could see those animals face to face. I was taken to Whipsnade, Woburn Abbey and London Zoo. I loved seeing big cats, elephants and other large African and Indian mammals, especially rhinos and hippos. Their size sent shivers down the spine. I respected the animals, and was in awe of them, and my tiny brain was not sophisticated enough to spot the irony of my awe: I was seeing these beautiful creatures hundreds of miles away from where they lived. They had been caught, kidnapped, incarcerated, imprisoned, enslaved. David Attenborough recently bookended some unearthed colour footage from three 1950s episodes of Zoo Quest, in which he travelled the wild tracking tasty-looking exotica to take back to London Zoo; he described what he was doing as “kidnapping” and felt some shame. I feel the same way about my willing participation as a visitor to zoos.
I understand that zoos now operate fully under the banner of “conservation” and have put their exploitative Victorian pasts behind them, working with charities and other selfless organisations to improve their image. Zoos no longer seem to want to be called zoos; they’re “parks” and “gardens” and “experiences” that “conserve” endangered species. But in doing so, however noble a cause that may seem, they must also put them on display for public pleasure and as gift-shop bait. They breed wild animals in captivity because it keeps the numbers up in a less hospitable natural world. But you’ll never convince me that animals bred away from their natural habitat is a good thing. I was thrilled to see a hippo, close up, in a stinky looking pond at Whipsnade Zoo as a schoolboy. But a hippo shouldn’t have been in Dunstable.
I suspect that everyone who works in a zoo loves animals. You’d have to. I cast no aspersions on the people who work with animals, or even the administrators of zoos. And I make a moral exception for sanctuaries for rescued, orphaned or injured creatures that are sited in the home country of the animals themselves. I just think we ought to move on from zoos as animal theatre. No more dolphin displays, please. No more feeding time. Cincinnati Zoo’s YouTube channel is currently hyping a future attraction, which is a massive enclosure for two hippos. Hippos shouldn’t be in Ohio either. I saw a massive polar bear in the tiny zoo in New York’s Central Park. I could barely believe what I was seeing. “Wrong” doesn’t describe it. Leave them be.
The silverback is an endangered species. As are the eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla and the western gorilla, threatened by human destruction of their natural habitat, and human commerce around bushmeat. (The Ebola virus also kills gorillas in central Africa.) They face extinction from many quarters. Some might argue that giving them a safe home in a zoo is better than leaving them to the poachers. I say go the source. We’re endangering them. Let’s stop doing that.
Because shooting a blameless gorilla dead in a zoo designed to conserve it may be the saddest irony I have ever heard.