Gorilla Ndume's Return To Zoo Could Doom Ape Language Research

CINCINNATI, OH — Ndume, the silverback caught in a legal tug-of-war with the research foundation that trained the legendary “talking gorilla” Koko, will be heading home to the Cincinnati Zoo under a federal court order that came down late last week. Both the zoo and The Gorilla Foundation had passionately argued their perspectives of what was best for the 37-year-old silverback, and U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ordered Friday that the 37-year-old ape be returned to the zoo in Ohio to join an existing gorilla troop.

Ndume leads a solitary life at The Gorilla Foundation, where he moved under a loan agreement in 1991 as a potential mate for Koko, the gorilla celebrated for her ability to have meaningful, two-way sign language conversations with humans. Koko and Ndume never produced offspring, and the loan agreement stipulated Ndume would be returned to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo upon Koko’s death.

Koko’s death in June 2018 set up the legal battle shrouds the future of the research facility founded by animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson in uncertainty. Patterson famously taught Koko “Gorilla Sign Language,” a modified form of American Sign Language, but her organization not only won’t have a single gorilla in its care when Ndume leaves, it is unlikely to ever acquire a gorilla again.

The zoo had argued that gorillas are highly social beings, and it would it would be better for Ndume to live with others of his species in Cincinnati than “all by himself in California,” dismissing The Gorilla Foundation’s argument that a move would put stress on the elderly gorilla and potentially cause his death.


Read More: Koko’s Gorilla Friend Ndume In Custody Tussle


In a unusual move, PETA sided with the Cincy Zoo in the lawsuit, citing both The Gorilla Foundation’s lack of accreditation and transparency, past animal welfare violations and Ndume’s isolation.

The court order requires that Ndume be transferred within 30 days to the Cincinnati Zoo, where he lived the first 10 years of his life. The loan agreement was brokered by the Gorilla Species Survival Program, which manages breeding programs an oversees the wellbeing of more than 350 gorillas in captivity at AZZ-accredited zoos.

Great Apes Aren’t ‘Ordinary Chattel’

In his order, Seeborg acknowledged that Ndume is “not ordinary chattel” or property, but the contract was clear and there was no reason to “negate that agreement now.”

“Given that both sides represent that the well-being of Ndume is their paramount interest, however, they are expected to cooperate now to ensure the conditions under which he is transported to the Zoo and begins living there are as optimal as can reasonably be achieved,” he wrote.

Seeborg acknowledged that he isn’t a great ape welfare expert or “the sterling professor of gorilla care,” and wasn’t qualified to judge which organization is best suited to meet the silverback’s needs.

“I’m a judge,” he said last month after both sides presented their arguments. “I have to look at the contractual terms and see if the risks are so great as to defeat the contractual purpose.”

He said the various concerns raised by The Gorilla Foundation — that Ndume wouldn’t fit in after 27 years away from the Cincinnati Zoo, that he once regurgitated and threw feces at the public, and that the zoo shot and killed the silverback Harambe after a 4-year-old somehow managed to crawl inside his enclosure in 2016 — didn’t give him cause to nullify the contract or take a position against existing state and federal laws.

“You’re just telling me, ‘We have serious concerns,'” Seeborg said. “That’s not the same as saying, ‘There’s a plan to injure this animal.’ There’s no suggestion of that here.”

In a statement to Patch, the Cincinnati Zoo said it is pleased the court enforced the loan agreement as written.

“We look forward to working with The Gorilla Foundation to transfer Ndume to Cincinnati safely as soon as possible, so that he can once again live with other gorillas,” the zoo said.

Silencing Ape Language Research?

It’s unclear if Patterson and her lawyer will appeal the judge’s decision. Officials with The Gorilla Foundation did not immediately return Patch’s request for comment.

The Gorilla Foundation claims the Cincinnati Zoo, backed by the powerful AZA and other animal groups, has consistently blocked its attempts to acquire additional gorillas not out of concern for Ndume, but because they don’t want ape language research to continue and want to shut down a “critically important” area of scientific inquiry.

Patterson’s group says the Cincinnati Zoo and AZA opposition shifts attention away from “the potential benefits of interspecies communication for improved care and conservation of great apes like Ndume.”

“Continued research like the remarkable language breakthroughs with Koko (and her former gorilla companion Michael), are critically important and should not be shut down by the zoo industry — indeed, it should be pursued collaboratively by all institutions who are responsible for captive great apes,” The Gorilla Foundation wrote.

Koko, among a handful of other ape language superstars, lifted the veil between human and non-human primates, who also think and feel and have personalities and self-awareness. Growing awareness of their linguistic skills and other behaviors humans share with them has brought about a host of changes, some The Gorilla Foundation maintains are threatening to zoos.

The Gorilla Foundation argued in a November blog post that zoos claim may claim to be motivated by animal welfare, but are more interested in warehousing great apes and other sentient beings to attract the ticket-buying public, however fragile that line of business may be. In one glaring example of the changing times, Ringling Bros. circus ended a 146-year run in 2017 after growing public outcry over its elephant acts, in particular.

Susie, the Cincinnati Zoo’s first gorilla, arrived in the 1930s from Europe and was trained to perform for the public. She would sit at tea tables, eat with utensils and pose for photos wearing various outfits — stunts are verboten in today’s zoo world. But as she demonstrated the “awesome power gorillas had to command our attention and inspire introspection and caring,” zoo standards surrounding great ape care began to change.

The Cincinnati Zoo was one of the first facilities in the world to open outdoor gorilla habitats mimicking conditions in west central Africa, where gorillas naturally roam, and providing enrichment activities that stretch the great apes cognitively rather than train them to perform.

And, like most AZA zoos, the Cincinnati Zoo partners with international groups on the conservation initiatives benefiting wild great ape species, many of which are endangered. For more than 50 years, the Cincinnati Zoo has partnered with the Karisoke Research Center, established by mountain gorilla conservation pioneer Dian Fossey. Long after her death, her work continues in Rwanda and throughout Central Africa.

Koko And Robin Williams PR-Blitz Criticized

High-profile California pro bono attorneys claimed the zoo’s effort to get Ndume back was in retaliation for the work The Gorilla Foundation had done to expose “zoo mistreatment of intelligent, sensitive creatures,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported last fall.

The argument is an interesting one for The Gorilla Foundation to make. The organization was widely criticized after actor Robin Williams’ 2014 death for circulating a 2001 video of Williams and Koko during an afternoon play session, and said that Koko remembered Williams and understood the finality of his death.

The recirculated video was viewed millions of times and brought the spotlight back on Patterson’s work with gorillas, and fueled a new round of financial donations. Some experts criticized Patterson and others for “selective interpretation” — a skepticism has plagued other ape language research programs — and said doubt exists about whether Koko was genuinely sad over Williams’ death, or was just responding to the emotions of the humans around her.


Photo: A federal judge has ordered the silverback Ndume returned to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, which has a large outdoor habitat for the gorillas in its care. (AP Photo/John Minchillo: File)

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