From the Desk of Dan Ashe

Walking the Talk of Animal Welfare: The Story of Cincinnati Zoo and Ndume the Gorilla

They say, “If you’re going to talk-the-talk, then be prepared to walk-the-walk.” Talk is cheap and easy, but progress and accomplishment requires investment of talent and treasure, and a willingness to accept the risk of falling short or failure. Well, our colleagues and friends at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden have just shown us what it looks like to walk-the-talk of animal welfare.

Yesterday, the 38-year old gorilla, Ndume, was transferred to Cincinnati Zoo, from the self-proclaimed “sanctuary” at The Gorilla Foundation (TGF), in California. He is moving from an enclosure, where his only contact is with humans, to Cincinnati’s state-of-the-art habitat, where he has room to roam, and an opportunity to join one of their multi-generational gorilla groups. He will be able to live, as a gorilla, and among gorillas, and his presence there will help inspire thousands of visitors to respect and care for gorillas and all of wildlife and nature.

My intention here is not to belittle or antagonize TGF. In the end, their staff lent helping hands and cooperated to ensure a smooth transfer, and we are grateful to them. And hopefully, they will continue helping as Cincinnati works to transition Ndume to his new home, keepers, and gorilla troop. Suffice it to say, he was originally transferred there, from Cincinnati, to be a companion for the gorilla Koko, famous for being taught a form of sign language. He and Koko were never compatible. They lived in separate but adjacent enclosures, and it was agreed that his presence and diminished welfare, was welfare-positive for Koko. It was later agreed that he should stay until she passed, and that occurred June 19, 2018.

Honestly, the easiest thing for Cincinnati to do would have been to let Ndume stay at TGF.  Just move on. No one would have blamed them. Emboldened by recommendations from AZA’s Taxon Advisory Group and Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, and a clear signal of support from animal protection organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), they moved forward.

TGF resisted and fought hard. They refused to honor the contract they agreed to, which noted Ndume would return to Cincinnati upon Koko’s death. So, Cincinnati had to go to court to enforce it. TGF continued fighting, using arguments about the dangers of a transfer and bringing in questionable “experts” to argue a transfer was too risky. Ron Evans, Cincinnati Zoo’s Primate Curator, was able to demonstrate genuine expertise gained through experience in dozens and dozens of successful gorilla transfers. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo helped by providing Kristen Lukas, the AZA Gorilla SSP coordinator and  a masterful  expert witness, who confirmed the transfer is in Ndume’s best interests. For their part, PETA joined as an amicus (“friend”) before the court and supported Cincinnati. This combined effort demonstrated to all observers a clear united front on behalf of Ndume between zoological and animal welfare professionals.

Ultimately, the judge in the case declared that he was no expert on gorillas, but he was an expert on contracts and Ndume must return to Cincinnati. Long story short, TGF continued to resist, and Cincinnati and its legal team had to appear before the judge twice more. Each time his orders grew sterner. Finally, last Friday, he ordered the transfer to take place on Thursday, June 13, and it did.

And today, Ndume is at Cincinnati Zoo.

If you’re like me, many of you may have found yourself in situations where your talk got you into a walk that was longer and harder than expected. The path that Cincinnati walked with Ndume was steep and narrow and full of risk. They persisted. My favorite definition of courage is when someone follows their belief and does what they know is right, even when the price may be more than they want to pay.

With Ndume, Cincinnati Zoo showed us this kind of courage. They did what they believed to be right for Ndume as an individual gorilla. And by doing this, they have enhanced their reputation as a leader in animal welfare. They have reinforced the image of all AZA-accredited members as animal welfare leaders and advocates.

They had amazing support from their governing board, which also lends credence to AZA’s accreditation standards regarding governance.

They deserve our collective applause and admiration.

I started this with a quote about walking-the-talk. There’s a corollary to that quote that goes like this: “When all is said and done, often more is said than done.” We can all be proud of Cincinnati Zoo and how they have walked the talk of animal welfare. When Ndume needed an advocate, they stood up, spoke out, and acted, courageously.

Now that all is said and done, what has been done speaks most loudly.

Thank you Cincinnati Zoo, and welcome home Ndume!

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