Friday, October 27, 2017

Beyond the Glass

The below letter was sent to Meredith L. Bastian, Curator of Primates and also emailed to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. on October 8th 2017.

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 Allanach
Woodside, New York

Mr Allanach,

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.

Caroline Winslow
Program Supervisor
Department of Education and Volunteer Services
Friends of the National Zoo

Monday, February 20, 2017

Dear President Trump:

February 20, 2017

The White House 
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Trump:

It’s President’s Day, congratulations, one month in office - you made it. We made it!

Likely you’ll never read this letter. After all, the work of the president is too demanding to read every correspondence. Millions vying for your attention because your words, decisions, and behavior affect national and international policy. Yes the job of the president is so important I wonder if you will even still be in office by the time this letter reaches the White House? (Wishful thinking. Because in a just world, you would not be sitting where you sit.)

I mean, it’s not like you committed treason by colluding with the Russian government during the 2016 election or anything. Of course, one way you could alleviate some of this concern would be to release your tax returns. But I suppose this is all just more “fake news” trying to rain some pesky accountability down onto the old MAGA parade. The critics are such losers! They just don’t get it.  

At least your supporters, those who still defend you (shamelessly wearing their sad MAGA hats) they get it. They know the truth and it starts with a capital T! Yes, they believe in you! This is likely why you decided to spend part of this weekend in front of a crowd of supporters instead of in DC? Then it was off to another pricey (at least for American taxpayers) weekend at Mar-a-Lago to be surrounded by paid staff, paying club members, and a nepotistic team of doting sycophants. In your mind, those who support you at your rallies and inhabit your world of Mar-a-Lago are “the real” Americans and everyone else is “the enemy.” This is delusional and dangerous thinking that can only shirk the responsibilities of the presidency for so long.

Your supporters don’t read the “failing” New York Times and tuned-off CNN long ago. Likely, they still read the same websites, blogs, and twitter feeds that supported you throughout your (apparently ongoing…) campaign. These sites continue to publish the same mind-blowing conspiracies and propaganda that frame you as a misunderstood and embattled hero standing up for the downtrodden against some “shadow government.” Well soak it up while you can. Bask in the adoration while it last, because make no mistake, most of these supporters will turn on you, or never even believed in you in the first place. They only voted for you, or supported you because they (like you) don’t seem to really give a fuck about anything but their own little pissed-off world.  

Yes, “your people” don’t yet see what a majority of us saw long ago - you’re a fraud and unfit for the job. So why do I spend time writing a letter you won’t read in these your numbered days?Good question. 

In fact, is there even a hard-mail room left in the White House to receive this retro act of civic engagement? The whole organization seems in such disarray it would be surprising to see a team of interns organized to even do this. In December, the New York Times Magazine published a piece on the Obama White House’s hard-mail room. Obama read ten selected letters a day. Of course, he was also an avid reader in general. Do you read letters? President Reagan answered dozens over the weekends. So, perhaps you’ll read this one? If not, this letter can at least serve as a trusted medium for gathering thoughts on where I stand. And to ask what comes next in this uncertain time for our country?

Unsurprisingly, I did not vote for you. I saw you as an inexperienced, dangerously unhinged, celebrity with sociopathic tendencies. Accordingly, ever since you won the election, when I am not mortified by your actions on television, I have a difficult time focusing on the day and sleeping at night. When I do sleep, I have bad dreams (Bannon is sometimes there!) Not that these dreams always have you in them, but I cannot help shake this permeating feeling of darkness. As if there’s a troll under the bridge, or some menacing force lurking beyond the shadows. I cannot see it, but I know it is there. In the morning, there is brief solace when my senses are still between sleep and awake, when it feels like maybe this was all just a nightmare. But then the reality of our shared collective-trauma hits - Trump is president.  

And if someone, like myself, who benefits from the privileges that I do experiences these feelings of anxiety and fear, how are other people feeling? How are empathetic people to live in this new “normal” when the new “normal” is fear and chaos? The office of the president sets a tone and the one you set is uncivil.

I am angry and frustrated by your willful disregard for humanity and reason. Moreover, this has not been a “peaceful transition of power,” but instead what Naomi Klein labelled as a “corporate takeover.” Unsurprisingly, you lied to your voters when saying you would not work with the same insiders and investors you criticized throughout your campaign. Yes, I could list the many frustrating, frightening, and, embarrassing aspects of your administration, but I cannot continue living in this unhealthy way. I need to practice self-care and interact more with the positive aspects of this vibrant and educated community around me. President Trump, your corrosive and toxic influence will not beat me and will not destroy us.

I continue to remind myself that you’re only one man who can only do so much. (Admittedly, only one man with the nuclear codes, but still only one man…)  You will not make me “go low.” I will listen, I will speak with my neighbors, friends, and family. We will ask questions, while holding a high bar of personal accountability, respect, and integrity as we set forth to enact positive change in this world.

As a political animal, I usually look forward to watching the State of the Union Address. To be fair, I didn’t really start watching until the W Bush years. I also clearly recall President Obama’s words setting a civilized, inspiring, and pragmatic tone. I wonder if the tone you will set on February 28th will be as appalling as the one you spew at your news conferences or pep rallies? If so, people like myself, won’t be able to sit through it. We will turn off the television and will just need to look somewhere else for leadership? This is not a bad thing. We must remain above your corrosive influence and breathe. Hopefully, more people will find their voice and use it to speak out against injustice and speak up for our shared human, environmental, and civil rights.

As I know you will never read this letter, I am also fairly certain you will not do anything to earn my respect moving forward, but this is okay. You have awoken something very powerful - an educated and engaged electorate who will hopefully appreciate and understand the value of the press and our civic institutions. So, thank you.

In your book, “The Art of the Deal,” you write, “I play to people’s fantasies.” You call it “truthful hyperbole … an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”  Your administration seems to be working under the understanding that the electorate doesn’t care if you have told and continue to tell demonstrable and perhaps treasonable lies. (Lies that you cannot continue to just blame on the media.) True, you will always have some who will support you, or will continue to say they do as if they were pissing in the wind. I call these the “fuck it voters”. But alas, I am again reminded of something President Obama said in his final address to the nation, “A selective sorting of facts is self defeating.” 

Exactly, because soon, reality and facts will catch up with you.


Nicholas Allanach