June 13, 2019; NBC Bay Area
An eight-month long conflict between the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and The Gorilla Foundation (TGF) in California has come to an end with the return of Ndume to the Cincinnati Zoo where he was born.
Ndume had been on loan to TGF since 1991 from the Cincinnati Zoo as a companion to Koko, the gorilla famous for learning and communicating with humans through sign language. While both organizations claimed to have Ndume’s best interest in mind, the judge ruled that Ndume should be returned to Cincinnati where he could have regular contact with other gorillas. Gorillas are social animals and can become depressed if solitary for too long, but TGF claimed that the transfer was not safe for Ndume’s health and age, despite having no other gorillas for Ndume to interact with. Fortunately, the transfer was uneventful, and Ndume slept most of the way without the aid of tranquilizers. Now, Ndume will begin the process of meeting his new gorilla companions.
Ndume was 10 years old when he was loaned to TGF by the Cincinnati Zoo to live with gorilla Michael (who died in 2000) and to be a mate to Koko. While their agreement clarified that Ndume would eventually return in the event that Koko died, TGF and the zoo faced strained relations once it was time for Ndume to return.
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TGF often positions itself at odds with zoos. They are not accredited by the AZA, meaning they cannot be partners in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan which provides guidelines and standards for the care of gorillas like Ndume who are from sustainable captive populations.
In the case of moving Ndume, TGF submitted a public document to the court expressing concern that all expert opinions that Ndume needed to be moved immediately were from “within the zoo community. The information TGF is providing comes from independent sources, and presents a balanced view.”
The document continues on to accuse the Cincinnati Zoo of withholding key information that may have revealed the risks of moving Ndume at his current health and age and dismissed Ndume’s need for gorilla companionship. According to PETA, “TGF has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its deteriorating facilities and failure to provide adequate veterinary care.” The controversy around Ndume’s rightful home highlights the difficulty of collaboration between organizations with similar missions and vastly different approaches.
In the end, TGF cooperated during the transfer, and their response was one of continued doubt but hope for Ndume’s future. The fate of TGF is unknown now that they no longer have gorillas under their care. Before Ndume was relocated, they appeared hopeful that they could acquire new gorillas to build a new community. What is clear, is that Ndume now has the opportunity to bond with other gorillas again and to receive the care he needs.—Julie Euber