The king is dead

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Campaign for real whale

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On July 26, the documentary Blackfish is released in UK cinemas. It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”

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You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela on Tuesday night at a private VIP screening of Blackfish laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

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In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe that’s double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish. Damn!