Captive Apes: Part 1

Baby Yola, seven month old Western lowland gorilla, Woodland Park Zoo

Baby Business: Why are great apes being born in zoos?

Baby Yola, seven month old Western lowland gorilla, Woodland Park Zoo

Baby Yola, seven month old Western lowland gorilla, plays in the watchful eye of mom Nadiri. Yola made her public debut a week earlier. She now is drawing large crowds hoping for a glimpse of her playful cuteness, but what does she tell the public about the crisis gorillas face in the wild? Yola is one of a dozen babies AZA member zoos will present to the public in 2016. Yola will likely live another 50 years, all captive.


“But what the public must accept,…
is that the pleasant notion of zoos as nurseries for restocking wild populations of endangered animals has proved a fantasy”

Those were the words of primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center speaking with the New York Times. If that is true, and gorillas have little or no chance of returning to the wild, what is producing babies worth? It appears a lot, millions in fact.

“Everybody who comes wants to see the babies,” said Knoxville Zoo President and CEO Lisa New. “They have their maps and they say, ‘How do we get to the gorillas?”

zoo goers great apes

Zoo goers swell at the gorilla exhibit in Seattle where a baby had gone on exhibit in the past week.

Baby great apes are big business. Baby gorillas seem to have special appeal. A birth can soar a zoo’s attendance and seriously raise revenues in the months after the baby goes on display. Based on web announcements at least nine zoos, AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) members in the US and Canada, have had or are having baby gorilla(s) born in 2016 — and local news headline like, “Knoxville Zoo’s baby gorilla’s… drawing record crowds”, is every zoo director’s dream, and will ensure the gorilla babies keep coming.

With so many zoos having babies it wasn’t difficult to find one close by to visit. I traveled a couple hours north to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo where seven month old Yola had just gone on “display.” And display is was. Special signs pointing to the baby ensured every zoo-goer would weave down the heavily vegetated path to discover Yola, and dozens and dozens of other zoo-goers. On this day mothers, kids and strollers dominated the procession, many of the children not much older than Yola. My curiosity was how was Yola promoting her species conservation crisis.

Gorilla conservation graphics line walls and exhibits at most zoos, but who reads them, and more importantly who acts? On this day all attention was focused on the new baby. One little girl tried to read the single sign proclaiming Western lowland gorillas “HIGHLY ENDANGERED”, but was squeezed out by the crush to see baby Yola. In two hours of shadowing the zoo’s attendant, there to answer questions, only one inquiry was about gorillas in the wild – which she couldn’t answer – and she never volunteered a conservation commentary. Yet conservation is the single governing criteria zoos claim for continuing to breed great apes.


Babies for Your Children’s Children

For many in the zoo world there persists some amorphous wilderness of the future where species will finally live in Garden of Eden like safety. That garden will be stocked with the offspring of endangered species in today’s zoos, like gorillas. While the genetic argument sounds logical it balances precariously on the hope for a future world dramatically different than all current events—rapid deforestation, bushmeat poaching, expanding palm oil plantations, frequent zoonotic disease (Ebola) outbreaks, climate change—portend. I was told, with mantra-like repetition, zoos are not having babies to bolster the gate, but to insure the genetic viability of their population. My question became, who is their population? Zoos contend gorilla births are managed for genetic control—through the Gorilla Species Survival Program (SSP)—to maintain their viability. The confusion for the public is this (or their), according to Keith Winsten, Executive Director, Brevard Zoo, “SSP’s were not developed to sustain the wild populations. They were developed to sustain the captive populations … they are potentially part of a strategy for wild populations, [but] they were about maintaining zoo populations.“

That returns us to Frans de Waal’s words, “… zoos as nurseries for restocking wild populations of endangered animals has proved a fantasy.” So why are we producing babies? The 800 pound gorilla in the room says, money.

The baby math doesn’t lie. Consider this year alone. In general zoos having a gorilla birth can expect a 10-25% increase in attendance in the months after a gorilla birth. Based on the nine zoos having gorilla babies in 2016, the average gate fee is $16.80 adult/ $12.29 child, a family of four $58.18. Baby gorilla births will generate $1.5–3.5 million in 2016.[1] This does not consider associated gift shop and food revenues.

If money is the real driver then I’m left with the uncomfortable thought spinning in my head: How then is producing great ape babies, like gorillas, any different than a baby-mill? If there is no legitimate chance of those babies being anything but an attraction, are we not just running a baby gorilla-mill to generate greater attendance and increase revenues?

Fort Worth Zoo director of communications Alexis Wilson told the local CBS affiliate, “The public is just having a ball,… We have people coming out on a weekly basis to see what Gus is doing now.” Since his birth last December, Gus, a baby Western lowland gorilla, has been one of the star attractions at the Fort Worth Zoo.

“The [Kansas City Zoo shatters attendance] credits many of its new additions, both animal and physical, for the attendance hikes, including the opening of the Orangutan Canopy, the birth of chimpanzee baby Milo, gorilla baby Masika” — CBS affiliate KCTV in 2016


“Knoxville Zoo President and CEO Lisa New attributes the surge in attendance primarily to the popularity of the zoo’s two baby Western lowland gorillas” – CBS affiliate WVLT-TV in 2015.


“Visitors are always attracted to babies. The gorilla births were…, along with some cooperative weather, [what] led us to one of our best years ever.” — Rod Hackney, North Carolina Zoo told WXII – TV in 2015


The Missing Link – Conservation

According to the AZA’s Gorilla SSP website 353 Western lowland gorillas live in 49 member institutions in the US and Canada. Considering Western lowland gorillas in captivity live 45-55 years, that’s enough gorillas to get us through at least a couple human generation — time enough for the zoos’ promise of “species conservation education” to inform two new generation of zoo goers about why we don’t need gorillas in captivity and should be fully focused (attention, money and science) on protecting them in the shrinking wilds. What louder, clearer conservation message could be sent to the public than for the nine zoos having babies in 2016 to say, this is the last gorilla baby to be born in captivity, in its lifetime we, all of us, must focus solely and committedly on ensuring wild gorillas don’t become extinct.

Despite arguments to the contrary, the zoo conservation message about gorillas, and other great apes, is failing to resonate. With nearly 200 million visitors in North America, and 700 million worldwide[2], if the conservation education message was getting out we would not have the threat of ape extinction looming like the Grim Reaper over the next decade.

Captive genetic diversity is key to long-term species survival because it prevents inbreeding and preserves a broad array of traits that  animals might one day need

gorilla conservation graphics

Gorilla conservation graphics line walls and exhibits at most zoos, but who reads them, and more importantly who acts? On this day all attention was focused on the new baby. One little girl tried to read the signage, but was squeezed out by the crush to see the baby. In two hours of shadowing the zoo’s attendant only one question was about gorillas in the wild – which she could not answer – and she never volunteered a conservation commentary.

to survive in the wild. Yet in the case of gorillas, survival in the wild is not, and will likely never be, an option. Thus far zoos have played little significant role in wild great ape conservation. And creating more baby gorillas does nothing for gorilla conservation. So where are we? What should be the role and value of apes in zoos in the future?

As part of their The Animal Lifeboat series, Dr. Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, part of the National Zoo in Washington, told the New York Times, “We as a society have to decide if it is going to be ethically and morally appropriate to simply display animals for entertainment purposes,” continuing, “In my opinion, that model is broken. There needs to be an explicit role for zoos to champion species.” A paradigm shift in zoo thinking and actions of near titanic proportions is needed to chart a truly conservation focused course. One that addresses not only the needs of Critically Endangered species like gorillas, but also truly engages the public in the journey and need.

After a few hours of standing in silence, watching the public ooh and ahh over little Yola, I was left wondering — even if zoos were that courageous, is the public prepared? After all, it’s a sunny afternoon when the gorilla baby goes on display and as I overheard a man with two small kids say, “Well, that was a sixty dollar day, was it worth it?” Both kids squealed, beaming, “yes!” He smiled. They had gotten their moneys worth and so had the zoo. Meanwhile in Cameroon, at the Mefou Primate Sanctuary, run by NGO Ape Action Africa, a young Western lowland gorilla, Parry, was also  going on display although no throngs of visitors paying $60 would see him. A poaching victim, his mother shot, x-rays revealing bullet fragments remain in his arm. He, like Yola, will spend the next 50 years in captivity, because there is no wild to go back to. In 2016 hundreds of millions of people will visit zoos, many will see a gorilla, including a new baby. Meanwhile, no zoo is effectively making the conservation connection to Parry’s plight — or else fate’s trajectory for gorillas in the wild might not be pointed towards extinction.



Notes & Sources:

personal observation notes at Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Washington USA for GA2020 project, June 21, 2016

1]based on a family of four – two adults/two children – gate data from zoos: Buffalo, Calgary, Como, Fortworth Denver, Knoxville, Louisville, Philadelphia, Seattle,

2] In North America over 181 million annual visitors – more visitors than NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB annual attendance combined.

In complete transparency, the Philadelphia Zoo, an AZA member, has invested in supporting my Great Apes 2020 reporting project with a 2015 ($20k) and 2016 ($10k) award.




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