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Gorillas have no place in captivity

Thumping his chest, a silverback of the London Zoo management has announced that, after the premature deaths of two male lowland gorillas, another is to be imported. “Without a doubt, seeing a gorilla will rank as one of the most breathtaking moments in a person’s life,” zoological director, David Field, has said.

He is almost right, but has carefully omitted three key words: “in the wild”. It is indeed a truly moving and awe-inspiring experience to see these extraordinary creatures in their natural habitat. Looking at them in a zoo is as different as it could possibly be. It makes one faintly ashamed to be a human being.

The eye of a gorilla is expressive. Gorillas in the wild who’ve been habituated to human presence will glance at them with a patient, slightly superior air. Those in captivity express only the misery of boredom. Apart from the money-making business of providing entertainment for humans, there are two arguments for this cruelty, and both are feeble. One is that breeding in captivity has a conservation purpose for endangered mountain and lowland gorillas.

The truth is that no gorilla used to life in captivity can be introduced into the wild. Significantly, the gorillas kept in London Zoo have reproduced only once over the past 22 years. What we are essentially doing is producing a sub-species, bred exclusively for human amusement. Some would say extinction would be preferable. London Zoo boasts that 10 per cent of the £5.3m budget for its Gorilla Kingdom goes towards conservation on the ground. In other words, nine-tenths of their cash goes towards imprisoned rather than wild gorillas.

The real message provided to visitors by places like Gorilla Kingdom is simple, reassuring and profoundly harmful: even the most magnificent of animals exist for the diversion of our own superior species.

Independent, Tuesday, 10 August 2010