Fight over gorilla's future home headed to San Francisco court

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There’s a new legal fight over where a somewhat notorious 37-year-old gorilla should live out his remaining years.

His name is Ndume and for 27 years, the silverback gorilla was a social companion for Koko, the female gorilla famous for having learned American Sign Language. The two lived a seemingly happy life at The Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in Woodside until Koko died in her sleep last June at the age of 46. 

A few months later, the Cincinnati Zoo, where Ndume was born, announced it was ready to move the gorilla back to his original home based on a recommendation from The Association of Zoos (AZA) and Aquariums’ Gorilla Species Survival Plan. 

The zoo claimed that Ndume was really only on loan to The Gorilla Foundation and a binding agreement, which the zoo says was clarified and updated in 2015, said that when Koko died, Ndume would return to the zoo so he wouldn’t be isolated from other gorillas. 

“We have ten gorillas, including relatives of his, who can provide socialization opportunities, qualified vets, dedicated, highly-experienced gorilla caregivers, and an excellent AZA-accredited facility that we recently renovated and expanded,” said Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard in a statement.  

But Maynard said the foundation continually refused to cooperate with the zoo to coordinate the gorilla’s return. Last week, the zoo filed a lawsuit against the foundation for violating the contract to bring Ndume back to Cincinnati.   

“I have known Ndume since he was two years old and have visited him many times during his time at The Gorilla Foundation,” said Cincinnati Zoo’s Curator of Primates Ron Evans in a statement.  “He is a healthy, normal gorilla and deserves opportunities to be near and co-habitate with other gorillas, a critical foundation need for this highly social species. It’s a shame that The Gorilla Foundation is not honoring that agreement and instead forcing Ndume to live in isolation for months now.”

An email seeking comment from The Gorilla Foundation was not answered Monday. 

But Francine Patterson, an animal psychologist who cared for Koko and co-founder of The Gorilla Foundation, wrote in a September letter addressed to zoo officials that a move would harm Ndume by causing unnecessary stress. She said it would also exacerbate an “ongoing suffering after the loss of Koko.”

In the letter, Patterson claimed Ndume screamed, banged and shoved objects for 14 consecutive hours after overhearing talk of a transfer – behavior the gorilla had never before exhibited at the foundation. She said gorillas’ ability to understand human speech is underestimated, and the foundation’s “decades of experience communicating with them confirms their ability to do so.”

Dan Ashe, the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. said his organization is disappointed that the foundation “has decided to ignore its contractual commitment to the Cincinnati Zoo” and is delaying Ndume’s transfer.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has also become involved in the fight over Ndume. Delcianna Winders, a PETA Foundation attorney, released a statement saying:  “he deserves to have the opportunity to thrive and socialize with other gorillas, and PETA supports the Cincinnati Zoo's efforts to remove him from The Gorilla Foundation's tumbledown facility, with its history of failures in both cleaning and veterinary care.” 

Numerous reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the course of many years show violations relating to the foundation’s failure to properly clean and maintain its facilities.There are also reports related to improper veterinary care for Koko before her death.

In a 2014 inspection report, Koko was described as not feeling well and was said to be unwilling to use her legs and to have reduced function in one of her arms, but wasn’t examined by a veterinarian.

A federal judge in San Francisco will decide Ndume’s future.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.