Zoos of forty years ago did not have the same ethical standards they have today. I don’t know how the Toronto Zoo, for example, acquired 6 or more infant lowland gorillas in 1974, but I’ll bet they would handle it differently today. One clue about the origin of those gorillas might be found in the accounts of Dian Fossey’s 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist. Fossey rescued a young gorilla named Coco in early 1969 from an office in the nearby city of Ruhengeri, Rwanda. The baby had been captured with the sanction of the government, for delivery to the Cologne Zoo in Germany in exchange for a Land Rover vehicle and an unspecified amount of money. Fossey wrote in her book that “ten members of the gorilla group were killed in the capture [of Coco]”. A week later, another infant was brought to Fossey’s camp. This animal, which she named Pucker, “had come from a group of about eight animals and, like those of Coco’s group, all the family members had died trying to defend the youngster”. Both Coco and Pucker ended up going to the Cologne Zoo and died within a few months of each other less than 10 years later.
According to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website, fewer than 900 mountain gorillas are left in the world today and the Grauer’s (eastern lowland) gorilla population is also endangered. In fact, all gorilla habitats are threatened. The conservation activities of the Fossey Gorilla Fund take place on many levels and places, in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the United States, and around the world. In Rwanda, their Karisoke™ Research Center protects gorillas and cares for rescued gorillas in Parc National des Volcans. Their programs in the Congo include collaboration with rangers at Virunga National Park on the eastern border with Rwanda and with a network of community-managed reserves in a 42,000 square mile landscape further west that is the habitat of the lowland gorilla.
Founded by Fossey in 1978, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. The Board of Trustees is made up of environmental activists, celebrities, and (most interestingly) zoo directors. It is also interesting that this organization, which is keeping the Karisoke Research Center in operation and which raised more than $3 million in 2013 for the conservation of gorillas in Africa, does it all from an address at the Zoo in Atlanta, GA. In fact, if not for the work of zoos, this critical conservation work would not be happening and mountain gorillas might already be extinct. This is particularly ironic, given that Fossey wrote in her book that zoo gorillas are “exhibited simply for exhibition’s sake” and photographs of her beloved Coco and Pucker revealed “their depression … during the years of their confinement in the Cologne Zoo” – arguments that are still being made by animal rights activists today.
Dian Fossey was no supporter of zoos, which is understandable given the way zoos of the time treated her animals – both in captivity and in the wild. But Fossey could not have foreseen what zoos would become. For her, the zoo was a concrete cell with iron bars and a tire swing, not today’s family groups of gorillas living naturalistic areas, some of those areas measured in acres. And what would she make of the fact that without the involvement of zoos, her conservation efforts, and likely the gorillas themselves, would have long ago ceased to exist.
Given how much zoos have changed in forty years, I wonder what they will look like in another forty? I just hope gorillas are not extinct. Maybe we will have learned how to talk to them by then – although I am not sure that is a conversation I would be proud to have.