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Zoo conditions have changed dramatically for gorillas in recent years, as our understanding of their biology has developed. Gorillas were not described by science until 1847, and very few made their way alive to Europe or North America  for 19th Century zoos to display. Since they were spared the centuries of barbaric exhibition suffered by chimpanzees and orang utans, the history of gorillas in zoos is quite well documented. At first it looked as if gorillas would never survive in zoos. The first five at London Zoo all died soon after their arrival, and the Council of the Zoological Society determined for a while not to send for any more. After the First World War, however, the zoo did occasionally play host to a gorilla named John. He was the family pet of a Miss Alyse Cunningham, and he apparently shared her flat in Sloane Street, slept in a bed, went of his own accord to the bathroom, and lived as a Londoner for several years. He may have inspired the zoo to try again with gorillas. But apart from Miss Cunningham’s several gorillas, contemporary accounts of the species in captivity unanimously record their nature as ‘sullen, gloomy, ferocious, and quite untameable.’

In the years leading up to the second World War, scarcely one gorilla a year left Africa for Western zoos. After the war the trade began to increase. By 1954 there were 56 gorillas in Europe and America, and by 1960 there were 160. They were still perceived as being ferocious and sullen, and were always held in small, heavily barred cages, usually alone. The public image of the gorilla was still of a brutal, aggressive monster, not of a peaceful, sociable vegetarian, and zoo cages did nothing to correct this misunderstanding.

But now things are changing. Today there are around seventy gorillas in nine British zoos (all the Western Lowland subspecies), and two zoos in particular, Howletts Zoo and Jersey Zoo, have between them set new standards for the keeping of gorillas against which all other zoos must now be judged. The new standards arise from a simple but fundamental observation. Wild gorillas do not live alone. They live in large social groups. So why not keep them that way in a zoo? Howletts and Jersey tried it, and the sullen psychotic ape became once again the peaceful, gentle, browser. Howletts now keep around thirty- five gorillas in one large enclosure. It is little more than a huge caged gymnasium, its floor strewn deeply with straw. In this adventure-playground of a cage there is room for the whole range of social interactions that field workers observe in the wild. The huge silver-back males control the harem of females while the younger males vie for superiority. Baby gorillas are carried about by their mothers, and a gorilla birth is now a routine event at Howletts.

Gerald Durrell has created a similar social environment at Jersey in a large outdoor compound with steep, barrier walls within which the eight or more gorillas thrive under the watchful eye of the zoo’s best known inhabitant, the huge but gentle ‘Jambo’.

There is little doubt that the success of these two enclosures has blown a wind of change through many European zoos. Some like Chester have chosen to stop keeping gorillas, suddenly aware of the shortcomings of their housing. Others are attempting to copy one approach or the other. The new £600,000 gorillarium at Port Lympne is a high-tech masterpiece, borrowing heavily from Howletts but adding a new dimension of height to the captive environment. And although few zoos have enough individuals for a genuine social troupe, the breeding successes now achieved with the species begin to make the future look promising.

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