Looking for a nice photo for the cover of the book I just published with Peter Singer, ape rights (Madrid, Trotta 2022), we chose the one that accompanies this article, which Trotta included with others in the book. Since we maintain that other hominids or great apes are also people, we couldn’t use this image without knowing who they were. Investigating, I discovered so many traumatic deaths behind this photo that you will need all your fingers to count them. Chance? I do not think so. Behind the adorable family portraits, zoos are full of horror stories.
Asha, the mother gorilla in the photo, was born to Moja and Martha, at the Gladys Porter zoo in 2002, the year in which her brother on the father’s side, Harambe, who was only two years old, lost their mother Kalya, sister of Martha, age ten, her brother Makoko, age one, her half-sister Uzuri, age two, her half-brother Cesar, age three, and another brother, still unnamed, who was stillborn the next day.
Being caged, they were unable to escape the slow yellow fog of chlorine gases generated alongside them through neglect. The five gorillas, in the lethal fog, died of suffocation and pulmonary edema. In 2011, Harambe’s other half-sister, Pearl, had died within two months of an intestinal infection. Digestive problems are common in zoos. They do not eat the wild fruits and living and medicinal plants that they need. They stand, eat leftovers out of boredom, vomit and, frequently, the psychological discomfort produces behavioral or digestive pathologies and immunosuppression. Moja, Asha and Harambe’s father, also died young of heart failure, and he was the healthiest of his siblings, neither of whom survived infancy. Heart problems affect 70% of captive male gorillas and kill 41%. Free gorillas do not suffer from this disease, nor these terrible mortality rates.
When Asha was only nine years old, she was taken to Cincinnati to produce babies for the Cincinnati zoo. She was mated with Jomo. Captive gorillas cannot choose a mate and become pregnant very young and more frequently, to compensate for so much mortality. Like slave traders, zoos separate girls from their families to multiply their wealth by impregnating them early. Zoos are also interested in babies because they attract more visitors, because they can later sell or rent them, and to argue that they are saving the species or that, if the mothers have had children, they cannot be so bad. But zoos are prisons for psychiatric patients who have contributed since their invention to the poaching that accelerates extinction.
At twelve years old, Asha gave birth to Mondika, nicknamed Mona. Asha learned how to take care of her from the gorilla M’Linzi, who the year before had adopted little Gladys, daughter of Moja like Asha and Harambe, but raised by humans because her biological mother couldn’t. Captive gorillas do not even know how to breastfeed their children, because in freedom they do not act by instinct but according to a culture that they do not have in zoos. There are also mothers who learn to take care of babies, but then cannot take care of theirs, due to the mental state caused by captivity.
When Asha was fourteen years old, a boy snuck into the zoo compound and, for good measure, the zoo shot his brother Harambe, who had celebrated his seventeenth birthday the day before, as I explained then in method. The day Asha turned seventeen, the zoo gave her another sentence. She was taken to Dallas, away forever from Mona, Gladys, Jomo and M’Linzi. Jomo died in 2022 and Mona may also be taken because the mothers’ zoos of origin leased or leased to other zoos for babies retain ownership rights to the firstborn. The birth zoo is only entitled to the second baby. Gorillas have no legal rights to their babies at all and can be forcibly ripped from them.
According to tradition, if we make pacts with the devil, he will collect his service by taking our firstborn. This is not the only similarity between the zoo and the devil: the ambition of both is to have more and more people locked up in their hell.
Like the devil, zoos employ misleading advertising. They use images of happiness and family unity, as if they were happy places where animals have fun, and not prisons for innocents that separate families when it suits them to generate more patients in need of anxiolytics and antidepressants. It is therefore no coincidence that behind this beautiful photo there was so much death and discomfort. Zoos are like that. All captive gorillas are lowland gorillas because no mountain gorillas survived captivity; and all apes suffer, even if they don’t die of grief, like mountain gorillas. Lucy Birkett and Nicholas Newton-Fisher published in the magazine PLoS ONE a 1,200-hour study of forty chimpanzees residing in social groups, with relatively good space and conditions. The investigation concluded that all chimpanzees had signs of mental illness with no cause other than captivity itself. The neuroscientific study by Bob Jackobs and Lori Marino, whom I recently interviewed on method, shows graphically that captive apes have a thinned cortex, a reduced number of cells glia, a weakened blood supply, neurons with less body and activity, inefficient synapses and fewer and shorter dendrites: not only do they live with a shrinking heart, they also have an atrophied brain. What can justify such cruelty?
The fact that zoo life incapacitates them to return to the jungle does not imply that they cannot be in better conditions, in sanctuaries or in larger places that do not force them to be in a shop window from 10 to 6, and the rest of the time in a small room. They should have the choice to be with their loved ones and not be with those they don’t want to be with. The fact that those already in zoos can never be free is not an argument for breeding more apes that can only live in cages.
Precisely, if there is no choice but to agree with the devil and leave those who are already there in zoos, we must provide apes with basic rights that give them a minimum of protection from their jailers. We urgently need a Great Apes Act that does not leave them at the mercy of those who profit from them and prohibits private ownership, invasive experimentation, sale and rental for commercial or reproductive purposes. To do this, we can send a letter addressed to the General Directorate for Animal Rights to [email protected] supporting the creation of this law. Gorillas like the ones in this photo need us.