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Stressed Great Apes Go Stir-Crazy in Zoos

On March 18, 2004, Jabari, a young gorilla who was as curious and full of life as any human teenager, escaped from his prison cell at the Dallas Zoo, injured four people, and was shot to death by police officers. Since 1990, there have been dozens of similar great ape escapes at zoos, including a September 2003 incident at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo involving a gorilla named Little Joe, who led more than 50 police officers and zoo staff members on a two-hour chase through darkened woods and along a nearby street outside the zoo.

Gorillas are normally shy and gentle animals who are capable of selfless acts of compassion. In August 1996, another gorilla, Binti Jua, captured the public's attention in a different way. Binti Jua was sitting in an exhibit in Chicago's Brookfield Zoo with her infant on her back when a child fell into the exhibit's moat. As zoo visitors held their breath, Binti rose and made a beeline for the boy. Ever so gently, she picked the boy up and, her own child still on her back, carried him to a spot at the back of the exhibit where her keeper could reach the child through the metal dividing door.

These highly social beings live in densely vegetated tropical forests where they are constantly stimulated by a variety of plants and wildlife as they explore their jungle homes. Gorillas love one another, laugh, sing when they are happy, play, grieve, and become neurotic and extremely frustrated by their inability to make choices in their lives of confinement.

In zoos, gorillas and their precious infants are traded and shuttled from place to place to suit breeding programs, leaving their complex and multifaceted social relationships in tatters. Gorillas are not aggressive by nature, but when they are held captive in zoos, these bright, curious animals can become hostile, withdrawn, and even violent. At least 14 zoos have resorted to treating gorillas suffering from captivity-induced madness with antidepressants, including Haldol, Prozac, and Zoloft.

Zoos, which were started at a time when few people traveled to exotic places and when wildlife videos did not yet exist, no longer have any excuse for keeping intelligent, social animals in cages. Habitat loss and other perils of the wild are not justifications for jailing animals in cruel conditions and depriving them of all that is important to them. It is time to kiss zoos goodbye and to show that we have learned something about the needs of great apes.

Jabari was not the first great ape to escape from confinement at the Dallas Zoo. In 1998, a male gorilla named Hercules escaped from his cage and then bit one of his keepers and dragged her down a hallway. The zoo paid a $25,000 fine to settle allegations that it violated the federal Animal Welfare Act by failing to prevent the escape. And in 2000, a chimpanzee was electrocuted after escaping from her enclosure at the Dallas Zoo. She scratched a zookeeper, who required hospital treatment, and climbed a telephone pole. The zookeeper fired at the chimpanzee with a shotgun, and a veterinarian fired a tranquilizer at the animal, causing her to fall. She was electrocuted as she grabbed for a power line. The Dallas Zoo is clearly doing an abysmal job of providing a safe environment for the great apes in its care.

There is no justification for keeping intelligent, social animals in cages for our fleeting distraction and amusement. There are an estimated 330 gorillas, 360 chimpanzees, and 190 orangutans in U.S. zoos. The minimum cage size recommended by the zoo industry for each chimpanzee, orangutan, or gorilla is a pathetic 14 feet by 14 feet by 10 feet. If your local zoo displays great apes, monitor their living conditions. Look for signs of abnormal behavior, such as over grooming, aggressiveness, self-mutilation, rocking, regurgitation and reingestion (eating of vomit), lethargy, and coprophagy (eating of feces). They should have adequate companionship, access to outdoor areas, toys, climbing structures, and a place to seek out privacy from gawking visitors. Encourage the zoo to improve conditions and stop breeding great apes.

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