Below this letter to Meredith L. Bastian, is the response I received from Caroline Winslow on October 30th 2017.
Dear Meredith L. Bastian,
Like you, I am concerned about the well-being and survival of primates. As an expert in this field, I hope you (or at at least someone from your staff) are willing to answer a few questions I had that have been bothering me since my last visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC. These questions concern my experience visiting the Great Ape House and regard the ethical treatment and well-being of the orangutans and western lowland gorillas, specifically.
First, are the living conditions (enclosures) for these animals healthy and safe for their quality-of-life? I do not mention this to be dismissive to you, or your team’s work - I am concerned and, like you, respect these great creatures. I say this because I was saddened to observe a mice infestation throughout the Great Ape House, which I did not notice throughout the Think Tank. Also there was a noted amount of feces throughout these enclosures, which seemed excessive in relation to what I saw at the Think Tank. I am not a zoologist, just a visitor to the zoo and hopeful that this was just an “off day” for facilities maintenance and that my concerns have been cleaned up since my last visit there in June.
My second concern is more complex and regards the behavior I observed from these primates. Many of the apes were nesting in the corners of their enclosures. They were surrounding themselves with mounds of hay and/or covering their faces and heads with blankets. At first, I thought this was unusual behavior, but I did some research to discover apes nest. But why would these animals be nesting so early in the day? This was 4 p.m. Of course, when I now read this back to myself, I think, Yes! That would be a natural time to take an afternoon nap! However, this brings me to another part of my concern, which is that the apes do not seem to have an adequate environment (at least from observation) to find solitude and peace to take a nap.
I was most disturbed and troubled by the treatment of the 22-year old silverback, Baraka, who spent the entire 30 minutes I was in the Great Ape House, staring with marked irritation at the many taunting and aggressive zoo visitors from the other side of the enclosure’s glass, separating them. When not giving these visitors the death stare, Baraka would eat his own feces. Many visitors just laughed and taunted the great ape further into madness. I don’t think I need to question whether this is a healthy environment for such a powerful and intelligent creature, because part of me knows it is not. Baraka seems to be going stir-crazy. Wouldn’t an animal of his size and intelligence need more space for privacy and peace? I wonder if the Smithsonian has considered placing these apes further away from the public so that they do not feel so tormented and bullied by the onlookers? (I share similar concerns about the elephants.)
I guess I am trying to understand how can the Smithsonian both communicate a shared biological relation to these primates, while also expecting these “shared ancestors” to live, everyday, in such demoralizing and possibly abusive conditions? I realize you try to provide enriching experiences for the orangutans and gorillas (which I did see indications of in the Think Tank enclosure); however, maybe even these animals, in these enclosures, also need something more? As someone who respects the well-being of these animals, I would (as a zoo visitor) forego having such an “up-close” experience seeing them if it meant they had a better life.
Thank you for your time. I am not an expert on any of the above. But I am concerned about the well-being of these animals and would appreciate a response.
Nicholas AllanachWoodside, New York
Thank you for writing of your experience at the National Zoo Great Ape House and your concern for its residents. You clearly observed closely both the animals and the humans observing them.
The great ape enclosures are well up to standard. The National Zoo is accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and must therefore include the highest standards of care in all aspects of animal welfare. As I am sure you know, space for apes is counted in cubic footage rather than square, as apes will use space above the floor. These enclosures have many options for climbing and resting. Each enclosure is connected to an off exhibit space where animals can choose to be out of sight of visitors. If individuals are nesting in exhibit spaces it is by their own choice.
Other choices our great apes are given include when to eat and when to go outside. When food is left for them to have when they want and doors are left open so they can choose to be in or out we do end with rodents entering the space.
There is an Integrated Pest Management program at the Zoo which monitors, traps and assesses health of all types of animal pests. We do not poison due to the danger of ingestion by Zoo animals. The number of rodents visible changes over the course of a day, a month, a year. For instance there are apt to be more in the buildings when it is cold outside.
Enclosures are cleaned daily, with the caveat that there are occasional instances where an animal(s) choose not to leave an area (enclosure) for the day, and therefore, we do not have the opportunity to clean that space. The amount of feces at any given time is related to the number of individuals sharing the space and the length of time since the last cleaning. Think Tank and the Great Ape House may have been on different schedules on the day you visited.
Your concerns about Baraka “going stir crazy”, feeling “tormented and bullied by onlookers”, being ‘taunted…further into madness” are definitely concerning. Please know, as I said above, each animal has the ability to go off exhibit at any time. If Baraka sat and watched it was by his own choice. He could simply turn his back. If troubled he could leave altogether.
Often when people look at gorillas, particularly males, they read anger, boredom, upset into the ape’s facial expression. Taken feature by feature the reason for this is because gorillas have very heavy brow ridges, they give the face the look of frowning or displeasure. The ridges are in fact due to the strong attachment of heavy muscles used for eating the very coarse vegetation that is their natural diet. Gorillas do express emotion by their body posture, and by the amount they open their mouths and whether or not they show their teeth. The ‘death stare’ you saw is a normal resting facial expression.
I agree with you that visitor behavior can often be less restrained than one would wish. We do try to share “Ape House Etiquette” (stay low, avoid staring, turn slightly away) with visitors. The message does not always get through.
Feces eating or coprophagy is something we do see in gorillas. The information we give our educational interpreters is: It is believed that gorillas exhibit coprophagy because of a possible dietary function. It likely allows for increased vitamin & mineral absorption. It has been observed in the wild, but typically after prolonged resting periods during the wet season. It does look unattractive when you think of it from the human values point of view. But it makes sense for gorillas.
Gorillas, as you note, are intelligent beings, amazing beings that people relate to easily. The individuals at the National Zoo are given as much choice and control over their actions as can be safely achieved.
Department of Education and Volunteer Services
Friends of the National Zoo