Posts Tagged With: zoo

Resurrecting zoo animals: the case of Guy the Gorilla

Upon hearing that Knut’s body may be stuffed and put on display in Berlin’s natural history museum, a sadly appropriate end for a celebrity animal, I wondered about other museum animals well-known before their deaths.

Guy the Gorilla (a western lowland gorilla) was a celebrity resident of the London Zoo from his arrival–sucking adorably on a baby bottle–in 1947 until his 1978 death. He had come to London by way of the Paris Zoo, whose field workers had captured the newborn gorilla in West Africa. Londoners watched with enchantment as the baby ape explored its new world. As he grew, Guy’s body became formidable while his antics remained childlike. He reportedly took birds into his hands, gently examining them before letting them free.

Guy mounted for display. (© Natural History Museum)

When he died, his body was stuffed and mounted and, in November 1982, put on display at the city’s Natural History Museum. A few years later, curators removed him from public view. In October 2006, the museum loaned the gorilla to the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, England where he was displayed as part of an exhibit called “Weird and Wonderful.” I wonder which category his life best fits.

Now, Guy returns to the Natural History Museum; he is among one hundred specimens in an exhibit called “Sexual Nature.” The museum commented on its re-exhibition of the icon, saying he is a “superb specimen of masculinity” (despite his failed attempts to breed with a female zoo gorilla). Visitors to the exhibit, it seems, are supposed to view his body not as “Guy the Gorilla,” but as a fine example of a dominant male gorilla.

Are we to forget the individual animal’s past and imagine him as something he was not–a wild, virile gorilla? Is this somehow a better afterlife for Guy–to serve as an icon not of human-animal relationships, but of gorillas in the wild?

“Sexual Nature,” at the London Natural History Museum, opened February 11, 2011 and remains on display until October 2, 2011. Go see Guy and tell me what you think!

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Remembering zoo pals

One day after Knut’s untimely death, visitors to the Berlin Zoo flocked to his now-empty enclosure to pay their condolences, leaving behind candles, flowers, plush bears, and hand-written notes. These minature memorials remind us that zoo visitors enjoy emotional connections to the animals on display.

When the Portland Zoo lost its beloved Asian elephant, Pet, they remembered her with Thai lanterns in a tradition from the elephant’s native land. The zoo kept many of the gifts left by visitors at Pet’s enclosure in the days after her death. A memorial page permanently displays a keeper’s memories and dozens of visitor “memories and condolences.”

The St. Louis Zoo lost a celebrity gorilla known as Phil in 1958. Upon his death, the zoo’s director, George Vierheller commented, “He was one of my great pals” (zoo press release). Now, a statue representing Phil stands on zoo grounds as remembrance. Another zoo icon, Guy the Gorilla, lived thirty years before dying of a heart attack at his home, the London Zoo, in 1978. His body was stuffed and on display at the London Museum of Natural History for several years. The London Zoo now displays a bronze statue of Guy on its grounds.

A bronze statue now helps visitors to the London Zoo remember their beloved Guy the Gorilla. (Wikicommons)

The Berlin Zoo has a memorial book on site, and another online, where visitors can permanently record their memories of Knut and leave parting words for the polar bear. The online memorial book already has over two thousand entries, in several languages. The zoo has also set up a memorial fund to help protect polar bear habitats.

Ceremonies and statues invite visitors to mourn publicly, while memorial books allow for private contemplation. Should zoo animals be so remembered? Some say no. At the Bronx Zoo, an unmarked forested area holds the buried bodies of several large, former residents, including an elephant named Tuss who died in 2002. In a New York Times interview, Dr. Robert Cook, then chief veterinarian at the zoo, stated that the burial ground is not something he ever considered opening to the public. “It’s more for their bodies to go back into nature,” he explained. “Everyone’s view of life and death is different. My memories are still when I close my eyes I see Tuss looking at me, and standing in front of that site wouldn’t enrich that.”

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Knut is a cultural animal

I woke up this morning hoping the media would begin remembering Knut for what he was. He was a bear, but he was a cultural bear — a zoo animal people equated more with their plush versions than with his wild cousins.

But a tweet from Born Free Foundation censured the Berlin Zoo for keeping the bear in captivity. Their official statement led me to an article in the German newspaper, Spiegel, from March 2008. In it, a zookeeper makes two claims. First, that the zoo was frustrated with Knut’s inability to behave like a bear. “Knut must go,” he says without giving a clear indication of just where such an unique polar bear might be taken. The zoo had banned human contact hoping the bear would somehow, magically or innately, become more bear-like.

Second, the zookeeper claims that Knut did not know he was a polar bear. He despised Knut’s need for an audience, a requirement the bear expressed by howling when no one stood in front of his enclosure. “That has to change,” the keeper insisted.

Knut with the keeper Thomas Dorflein who raised the cub and was later denied contact. (Wikicommons)

The ideal vision this keeper, and the wildlife organizations denouncing the zoo, hold of a polar bear does not apply to all polar bears. While Born Free Foundation has a point about how a migrating species like polar bears should, perhaps, not be kept in zoos, Knut was born in captivity and had occupied a place halfway between animal and human realms his entire life. In fact, it seems it is the lack of contact with humans that killed him.

Why the zoo would withdraw such contact is confusing. Zoos are cultural institutions that display animals. Insisting a bear raised by humans should behave like a “wild” bear is misguided. Taking away the only affection Knut knew — that of humans — even when the bear was visibly distressed denies the very relationship that saved the cub’s life.

I know several animal studies colleagues who might insist this analogy does not work, but imagine taking your four-year-old house-raised dog and denying him all human contact. While a dog is not a polar bear and a pet is not a wild animal, neither is a zoo animal a wild animal. The Berlin Zoo’s retraction of human contact seems a denial of the relationships people — visitors and zookeepers — build with animals in these settings. We must not expect zoo animals to be wild or, for that matter, to be as tame as pets. Rather, we must see them for what they are. We must not insert our human hands only to withdraw them, expecting an animal to figure out some sort of innate “wildness” he knows nothing of.

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