December 2015 - January 2016

Essays

Anna Krien

In danger

Julia at Melbourne Zoo in 2011. © Arthur Xanthopoulos / Barcroft M / Getty Images

The strange life and tragic death of Julia the gorilla

In May 1982, Ineke Bonjer and Henk Lambertz, posing as a rich, childless German couple, borrowed a silver BMW coupé and drove up to a house in Westerlo, Belgium, that was surrounded by warehouses and security. Rene Corten, a tall, handsome man, somewhat ill at ease, was expecting them. He had sent them a copy of his price list that advertised more than 80 species, from black swans and hornbills to golden-bellied mangabeys and Australian cassowaries.

Corten gave the couple a tour of his warehouse, walking them past a cacophony of birds in cages and chimpanzees hunched over in tiny pens. Around one chimpanzee’s neck a length of rope had cut so deep it had left a red raw mark. When Bonjer pointed it out, Corten gestured dismissively. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, he did it to himself.” At one point a van arrived from the airport. As staff unpacked it, a pink flamingo, considered too weak to bother with, was left on the street to rot.

In Corten’s office, Lambertz told the animal dealer he was planning to start his own private zoo to entertain guests at the farm he had just bought. But for now, he simply wanted a special gift for his wife’s birthday. When Corten launched into a sales pitch about his birds, Lambertz cut him off – he said he thought the gorilla to be the most gentle of apes and knew Corten was in possession of one. Believing the customers only spoke German, Corten’s wife leaned over to him, whispering in Dutch, “This man has a lot of money.”

“I can help you,” Corten said eventually. He had, he said, a baby mountain gorilla. How exactly this gorilla came to Corten is unknown, but it is likely her family group was slaughtered for bush meat and trinkets, and the orphans kept alive for trade. As they negotiated a price, he said, slyly, “Young women can be expensive.” Bonjer and Lambertz settled on terms but were told they couldn’t take the gorilla today. The Cortens’ grandchildren were home and they’d be too upset to lose their companion. The couple would have to return when the children were at school. A week later, Bonjer and Lambertz returned for the handover. Corten’s daughter, Simone, sobbed, saying they couldn’t bear to part with her. Then the Cortens took Bonjer and Lambertz to see the small black gorilla, dressed in a red jumpsuit and nappy, in a playpen. Corten made funny faces at her, cooing in the way one would to a human baby. Finally, after what felt like hours, with the Cortens gathered to wave goodbye, the pretend couple bundled the gorilla into the borrowed BMW.

They drove to a parking lot in Diest where journalist Jan Bonjer (Ineke’s real husband) and his photographer were waiting. Months of stealth and investigation had finally paid off. Sitting on Ineke’s lap, the baby gorilla was gazing out the window, its leathery hands curled and settled like fallen leaves. For a little while, the gorilla pinched and nipped at Ineke, but by the time they drove over the border into the Netherlands later that day, she had snuggled in tight, and fallen asleep. She was named Julia.

Thirty-three years later, in May 2015, Julia lay in a heated den of a leafy green enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo, in obvious distress. The keepers and staff decided to go to her. The other gorillas were coaxed into the gorilla house and locked inside while a firearms team took position. Then a staff member entered the exhibit with a dart gun. The first dart did not take and another was fired. Julia was sedated. Up close, they observed that her head, arms, legs and back were covered in bite wounds. They lifted her onto a stretcher and carried her out. Her breathing was shallow and she had hypothermia. Blood results revealed her organs were shutting down. The punctures in her skin belied the real damage – her muscles had been crushed, leaving her in a state not unlike that of car crash victims. At three o’clock the next morning, Julia died in an enclosure next to her gorilla group, so they could see and smell her. G-Anne, a one-handed female gorilla, was allowed to enter the enclosure to inspect Julia’s body. The two had been close, having travelled to Australia together from the English Channel island of Jersey in 1997.

The keepers at Jersey Zoo, the wildlife park started by animal collector turned conservationist and author Gerald Durrell, had decided it was necessary to remove Julia from the group after a new silverback (a mature male gorilla) repeatedly attacked her, eventually breaking her leg. Now Julia had been attacked again – and her plight was once more in headlines.

‘Female gorilla “Julia” killed at Melbourne Zoo by young silverback male in show of “unprecedented aggression”,’ reported the Independent in the UK; ‘Children as young as five cried as they watched on in horror,’ wrote the Daily Mail. Melbourne’s Herald Sun quoted Belinda Carroll, whose daughter had been on a school excursion when she saw the male gorilla, Otana, attack Julia. “[The noise from the slapping] was really loud,” Carroll claimed, “and her lower fur was all bloody and red and you could see a gash. Julia would run away and then the male would come back and pounce on her, slapping her again.”

Later, when staff investigating Julia’s death studied the CCTV footage, they counted 11 attacks, each lasting between three and seven seconds. At one point Otana ran behind Julia and pushed her violently down the hill. “Why didn’t you stop it?” angry patrons later asked the zoo. The keeper had seen nothing out of the ordinary – and besides, disciplinary measures taken by the leader of a gorilla group are not something one ought to intervene in.The day before the attacks Julia had been off-colour – squinting, holding her head. It was a cold day and the vet suspected Julia was fighting a virus. It was agreed to keep her inside. The next day Julia’s appetite was back and she was eager to rejoin the group. On her return there was a small scuffle between her and Otana. Melbourne Zoo’s life sciences manager, Amanda Embury, a primate specialist and the lead investigator into Julia’s death, explains that this was not unexpected. “If you are managing a group in the wild, as Otana believes he is doing, you need to rely on every member of the group to ensure everyone’s safety, so Julia’s lapse and absence from the group needed to be dealt with.” But what ensued – the repeated nature of the attacks – is more difficult to explain.


“This image will never leave me,” Jan Bonjer recalls. He’s referring to the moment when he saw Julia for the first time, settled on his wife’s lap in the BMW. “They were both looking so happy.” In one photograph, Ineke Bonjer and Henk Lambertz stand in front of the car. Lambertz is clutching a teddy bear and Ineke is holding Julia, wrapped in a crocheted blanket, in her arms. Another photograph shows the wad of cash used to purchase Julia. The funds were put up by the magazine Bonjer wrote for and a Dutch zoo director and TV presenter, Antoon van Hooff. Bonjer was uncomfortable about buying Julia, he tells me, but saw no other way. “We would have needed a military operation, in a foreign country, and on what legal basis?” At that time, Belgium was not a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The country was renowned for its animal dealers, most of whom were strikingly open about their trade.

The choice Bonjer and his supporters faced was grim: leave Julia in the hands of Rene Corten and family, who would undoubtedly tire of her once she was no longer a baby, or fuel the trade and use her rescue as a way to expose it.


In his book The Ark’s Anniversary, Gerald Durrell recalls meeting a Dutch animal dealer in the early 1960s. The dealer challenges Durrell to request an animal he cannot get. When Durrell suggests a komodo dragon, the dealer scoffs. Easy. When Durrell suggests a panda, the dealer gives him a withering look. “Simple. Catch your panda, dye it all black and bring it out legally as a bear. No customs officer would know the difference.”

In 1975, more than ten years after this encounter, CITES came into force and slowly gathered signatories around the world. Today it oversees the trade of 5600 species and 30,000 plants, categorising them into groups: threatened species, species vulnerable to threat, and species protected in at least one country and needing assistance from others to limit trade.

Critics of the treaty suggest this structure actually enables smugglers. It is impossible to keep track of the implementation and review of so many species, such is the paperwork involved. Listings can also have unintentional results. A “threatened species” listing, for example, allowing trade in exceptional circumstances only, will often push up an animal’s or plant’s price on the black market. Those species that are not CITES-listed can simply be considered “up for grabs”.

Even when CITES works, it is hardly a deterrent. In 1998, an American undercover team arrested a notorious Malaysian animal dealer, Anson Wong. The sting was the result of a five-year operation, widely considered one of the most successful to date. Wong admitted to crimes that carried a maximum of 250 years in prison and a US$12.5 million fine. He was sentenced to 71 months in prison, fined $60,000 and banned from selling animals in the US for three years after his release. While Wong was in prison, his wife established a new company in her name, through which trade allegedly continued.

Surviving on a shoestring, and unauthorised to enforce its own regulations, CITES uses diplomacy to keep signatories in line. Infractions lead to mandatory oversight, warnings, suspension, and, at worst, a direction to all parties to suspend CITES-related trade with it.

Today, more than 180 countries have signed the treaty. While this may look like a collective success, reasons for memberships can be dubious: to stymie action as much as to facilitate it, for instance, or simply to avoid condemnation. There are also many instances of fraud and bribery: officials handing out illegal CITES documents to dealers, local zoos offering to hold animals for dealers while buyers are sourced. There is also little limitation on trading for animals bred, or said to have been bred, in captivity. Animal activists refer to the “C-scam”, a practice whereby threatened species are claimed to be captive-born. (“C” is the CITES source code for animals bred captive.) CITES’ focus is on wild life.

In spite of all this, CITES is considered by many to be the most effective international regulation to date. Both the World Wildlife Fund and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC are pragmatic supporters and robust watchdogs. Wildlife trafficking alone generates around US$7.8–$10 billion in revenue a year, while the legal wildlife trade is some $320 billion. In this sense, the age-old problem that faces CITES and the species it is trying to protect – and it doesn’t matter how much paperwork and red tape you throw at it – is the idea that animals are the property of humans to use and discard at will.


Julia’s initial rescue was documented enthusiastically. A crowd of people – representatives from customs, the Netherlands agricultural department and the World Wildlife Fund and a camera crew – met her at the Dutch border. As the group posed for photos and tried to answer questions, Julia was asleep in Ineke’s arms. The Bonjers then drove her to the family home of Yvonne van Koekenberg, in central Netherlands. A mother of three teenagers, Yvonne had also previously raised two chimpanzees and two orang-utans. Julia quickly accepted her. Yvonne’s son Florian, 17 at the time, remembers Julia as gentle and sweet, always wanting a hug. “She clamped to my mother as much as we let her do so, like she would have done with her natural mother,” he tells me over email. Julia was bottle-fed with milk, ate some solids and needed two naps a day. Florian recalls his mother walking Julia up and down the house at night, waiting for her to fall asleep, before laying her down in a playpen. It was a happy time in the van Koekenberg house – but outside things were beginning to unravel.

Julia, it turned out, was a western lowland gorilla, not one of the critically endangered mountain gorillas made famous by the work of American primatologist Dian Fossey. The plan had been to send Julia to Fossey in Rwanda and return her to the wild. In hindsight, this could have been catastrophic. In some instances, primates returned to the wild have been carrying diseases such as polio. In Julia’s case, the Melbourne Zoo later discovered she was carrying tuberculosis. Returning her to the wild could have wiped out an entire gorilla population.

When it was realised that Julia was a western lowland gorilla, commitment to her future began to wane. “‘Bush meat’ was the cynical reaction I often got,” says Jan Bonjer. At the time, Julia was not considered endangered or particularly special. Bonjer was presented with a number of options. Julia could be put in a breeding program or a scientific laboratory, or even put down. But he held fast to his belief that Julia ought to be rehabilitated to the wild, and wrote to researchers of wild populations. They all refused to take Julia. “I became more desperate,” he says. “What had I done? I felt foolish, and still I feel a deep guilt.”

Then Bonjer met Eddie Brewer and his daughter Stella Marsden. At their Abuko Nature Reserve in the Gambia, chimpanzees that had been confiscated from hunters and traders were prepared for release onto a “safe” island. Many of the chimpanzees had been rescued from the beaches of Spain, where tourists paid money to take photos with them. Although there were no gorillas in the sanctuary, it was decided to send Julia there for an in-between solution as Brewer and Marsden were planning a similar project for western lowland gorillas in Cameroon. Julia was almost two years old now. Jan Bonjer and Yvonne van Koekenberg accompanied her to the Gambian sanctuary. News stories reported that Julia was “going home to Africa”. It was the job of a young Dutch graduate vet, Marian Mensink, to look after Julia in the Gambia and teach her how to behave like a gorilla. Mensink reported that Julia hid under a dusty plaid blanket, trembling, for weeks after van Koekenberg said goodbye.


Today Rene Corten is 93 years old. His grandson, Toni Pistone, tells me he is healthy and happy. Pistone runs the business now. In a photograph on the Corten Zoopark’s Facebook page (Corten always referred to his business as a “zoo”), taken in 1997, Corten is wearing a knitted sweater and wire aviator eyeglasses, and he is smiling benevolently. He has his arms around a Shar Pei dog, hands buried in its rolls of fur. There are photos of men posing with cheetahs in grey block cells, of macaws, chipmunks, tortoises, toucans, hornbills and hundreds of budgies. In a promotional video, a lone East African crowned crane – gold, grey and white with a yellow crown – stretches and extends its long legs in a concrete cell. It pecks at the wall.

When Toni Pistone reponds to my email, I am stunned. Surely he would have steered clear. Instead, his email overflows with emotion. He is so happy to hear news of his “little sister Fifi” and shocked that she died recently. Fifi was the Cortens’ name for Julia. Pistone was 12 at the time and so excited. He describes how they treated her as a member of the family: “She was so wonderful and human, you cannot imagine.” But he came home from school one day and found his mother, Simone Corten, crying because “Fifi” had been sold. “For two days I cried and could not go to school.” His mother told him that the people who bought the gorilla were very nice and said they could visit when they wanted – and Pistone held on to this. But when they called, somebody else answered the phone. Here the tone of Pistone’s email is incredulous. “The people who bought Fifi gave us fake names, address, but why? This was not the deal, not what we wanted. In fact, we never wanted to sell her, only those people showed up with massive cash and promises you couldn’t refuse.”

Rene Corten was a notorious animal dealer. From the mid ’70s, his name was peppered throughout newsletters from activist groups such as TRAFFIC and the International Primate Protection League, with devastating accounts of his business. The baby gorilla was always going to be sold. It was just a matter of when. But Pistone, as if stuck in the mind of a 12-year-old, continues, “That is the story of how I lost my little sister.” He attaches a photo of him and his younger sister as children, sitting on a brown leather couch. Julia is on Pistone’s lap. He holds one of Julia’s hands; his sister holds the other, her face bursting with joy. “My dream,” Pistone writes, “was to find her again.” When I read this, I feel sick. He thinks he loves her.

The Corten Zoopark’s website spruiks more than 50 years of experience and offers an incubation service as well as export. In April, Pistone was sentenced to two months in prison and fined €6000. CITES inspectors had discovered 172 Japanese nightingales in a hidden locked space in the Zoopark warehouse. They also found 200 squirrels and the skins of wild cats in his possession, as well as inadequate paperwork for numerous birds – many that had not been bred, as pertained, but caught in the wild. Another inspection at the end of April led to the confiscation of 64 birds from ten species. When I ask Pistone about it, he tells me there were some issues with missing paperwork, documents he has since found and handed to the government. “In the meantime,” he adds, “the confiscated birds in the animal shelter, lots of them died … They say the birds were already sick, but I cannot accept [that] because at my place all parrots where 100% healthy and in good condition.”


In the Gambia, Marian Mensink, the young Dutch veterinarian, eventually coaxed the trembling Julia out from beneath her blankets. From then on, the two-year-old gorilla clung to her. “I had the feeling that she would not let me go for the rest of her life,” Mensink recalled in a 1986 article. Slowly, Julia began to inspect the edge of the forest, copying Mensink as the vet plucked and ate various leaves and fruit. At night, Julia slept alone in a small box next to an enclosure of chimpanzees aged between two and six years. Mensink, unable to source the right food, placed peanuts, white bread and oranges on a platform for her. The Gambia, Mensink discovered, was all wrong for Julia. It was hot and dry, while gorillas belong in rainforests. The proposed sanctuary in Cameroon seemed to be receding rather than progressing. Julia needed the company of other gorillas. Mensink was well aware a human pretending was not going to suffice. Chimpanzees had different behaviours, vocalisations and gestures – and this is where one of the biggest mistakes in Julia’s liberation occurred. Observing the chimpanzees – how they interacted, how they reacted to dominance – Julia absorbed their behaviour into her own repertoire.

After a year, the funding for Mensink’s placement ran out. On the plane home to the Netherlands, she felt heavy with sadness and guilt. “What are we doing to animals?” she wondered then, and still wonders, she tells me over email. We being the good guys.

But Mensink pushed on. She tells me how, at her urging, the World Wildlife Fund sent her to Cameroon to check on the plans for the rehabilitation sanctuary. Once there, she “met a Dutch volunteer in Yaoundé, with two baby gorillas in his backyard. The mothers [had been] shot for bush meat and the babies sold [then confiscated by authorities] … The two gorillas died within a year.” As for the sanctuary, she saw no sign of it coming to fruition. Seven years later, she returned to the Gambia. The chimpanzees had been moved onto their island sanctuary, and Julia was on her own. “It was a very bad situation.”

Soon after, in May 1990, Julia was transported to Jersey Zoo. In a report, the zoo’s head of the apes, Richard Johnstone-Scott, recorded Julia’s integration into a group of eight gorillas. Over the six months of quarantine, she stayed in a section of the gorilla house. Although she was isolated from the other gorillas, she was able to observe her potential companions through a window. “Initially startled, but clearly excited on seeing gorillas for the first time,” wrote Johnstone-Scott, “the new arrival was soon heard to emit grumble vocalisations indicating her pleasure.”

Julia was well loved by the Jersey staff: she was cheeky, playful and resilient. The three young female gorillas quickly warmed to her. But with the male gorillas and some of the older females, there were testing times. Kept apart physically, they met through partitions, where Julia was privy to their warnings, threats and displays of dominance.

“Consequently,” wrote Johnstone-Scott, “Julia was often given to bouts of ‘rocking’, which she sometimes accompanied with chimpanzee-like antics of ‘lip smacking’ and ‘gaping’.”

Jersey Zoo’s dominant silverback, Jambo, had shot to fame in 1986, when he stood guard between the other gorillas and an unconscious boy who had fallen into the enclosure. Seven months after Julia’s arrival, it was decided Jambo and Julia should meet with a partition between them.

Again, Johnstone-Scott:

[Jambo] entered in a shuffling, strutting trot with lips tucked, stood rigid for a few seconds and then shoulder-barged the barwork with considerable force. He repeated this three times in rapid succession, and then stood glaring as Julia, in surprisingly bold fashion, beat her chest, lip-smacked and then strutted defiantly along the length of the partition. It was a demonstration that Jambo seemed totally unprepared for, and for several minutes he contented himself with pacing majestically around his section of the exhibit.

The silverback again lunged at the partition and battered it. Julia retreated. The next contact saw Julia keep her distance and remain impassive.

Fifteen months later, after many such contacts with the silverback, Julia was integrated with the rest of the group. After an “impressive chest-beating session”, Jambo concentrated on seeking out Julia, while the three young females stayed close to her.

Johnstone-Scott wrote:

After approximately 20 minutes of patient stalking, Jambo managed to approach to within 15 metres of the group before breaking into a charge that scattered them in all directions. The luckless Julia, unable to avoid his rush, was subsequently bowled over several times, though her screams brought an immediate response from the others, who attacked the adult male with slaps and bites.

When Jambo was at a safe distance, the keepers let Julia back into her section of the gorilla house. These meetings continued for another couple of weeks, with Julia remaining resilient throughout. The keepers observed that G-Anne, who had undergone a similar integration some years earlier, stayed close to Julia as if mentoring her. After another month, Jambo ceased to assert himself over Julia, and she more or less settled into the group.


In 1993, Melbourne Zoo sent a male gorilla to Jersey Zoo to participate in its reputable breeding programme for rare species. Nine years prior, Mzuri had stolen the hearts of Melbourne Zoo’s visitors. He was the world’s first gorilla to be born in captivity as a result of artificial insemination. Visitors had flocked to see him, holding their breath as his mother had to be coaxed to care for him. Hundreds of people entered a competition to name the baby gorilla, and Mzuri (“beautiful” in Swahili) was chosen. Once in Jersey, however, he was renamed Ya Kwanza (“first” in Swahili). The new male clashed with Julia and G-Anne. After a series of attacks that culminated in Julia’s leg being broken, and showed no sign of relenting, the Jersey keepers decided to move the two female gorillas on and offered them to Melbourne Zoo.

Julia and G-Anne settled into Melbourne Zoo. In 1999, two years after her arrival, Julia mated with Motaba. Interestingly, this gentle gorilla was Jambo’s son. The next year Julia gave birth to a daughter, Jumatano, but the two were slow to bond. Jumatano had to be hand-raised but keepers ensured Julia had daily access to her – and in time, Jumatano could choose to sleep with her at night. When the infant turned two, she left the nursery to be reintroduced to the group. It was decided that Julia was ready to be a full-time mother – and she was. She and Jumatano became inseparable. When Marian Mensink learned of Julia giving birth to a healthy baby, she celebrated. “I thought finally she had found a good place to live.” For 17 years Julia’s life in Melbourne was mostly peaceful.

Then, in 2013, the group’s 42-year-old male, Rigo, died of heart failure. (In the wild, the western lowland gorilla’s average life span is 35 years.) Otana, from Howlett’s Wild Animal Park in England, was selected to join the group. Otana’s group at Howlett’s had mimicked as well as possible the natural social structure of a gorilla group: a dominant male with several females and their young, the males moving on when they became a threat to the leader’s dominance. It was Otana’s time to move on, and he was considered a good fit for the group at Melbourne Zoo. He established his role as leader fairly quickly and mated with Kimya, also a new arrival to the group. Like Otana, Kimya was raised by her mother in a stable family group. It is possible too much emphasis was placed on these shared attributes and not enough on the Melbourne group’s dynamic. After all, the rest of the gorillas were, in the words of Melbourne Zoo’s Amanda Embury, “a group of misfits”. Many of the females had backgrounds similar to Julia’s – mostly hand-raised – and as a collective they had run rings around previous silverbacks.

In May 2015, Kimya gave birth to a female gorilla, and she accepted her new role as mother with ease. Otana was endearingly protective. But as the baby began to draw more visitors, he became stressed. His responsibility for the group now included his kin. After he charged the glass at a group of visitors, keepers decided Otana needed space. They ran a rope across the exhibit so visitors had to stand further back. However, the day of Otana’s fateful attacks on Julia was particularly stressful for him. Embury says several noisy school groups had come through, and Julia was not submitting to his discipline. Embury sat through hours of CCTV and watched as Julia repeatedly sat near Kimya and the baby, in spite of Otana’s attacks and attempts to push her away. Again, Julia was not behaving as she ought to, instead mimicking the response of a chimpanzee. Otana, like Ya Kwana/Mzuri, was a young male. He lacked the experience and reluctant tolerance demonstrated by older silverbacks such as Jambo.

“He also didn’t seem to know his own strength,” Embury says. The power of his jaws killed Julia. He crushed her muscles so severely that cellular by-products and electrolytes were released into her bloodstream when he let go, triggering organ failure. But Embury is careful: it is important not to project human emotions onto the situation.

It is not unusual for male gorillas to inflict serious injuries on females, but it is unusual for a male gorilla to kill a female gorilla. In order to promote group cohesion, it is critical, according to gorilla experts, to support the silverback as the group’s leader and intervene only when life-threatening situations arise. Curiously, this advice is meant to apply to both female gorillas and zookeepers. Otana felt that his group was in danger, and Julia ignored him. Julia never really fit into the role of a gorilla.


In 2007, the western lowland gorilla, Julia’s species, was listed as critically endangered. In protected forests of Central Africa, poaching is rife – for use as bush meat or pets and to inhabit “zoos”. Their body parts are also used in medicine and as charms. In unprotected areas, there is the relentless loss of habitat.

Karl Ammann, a Swiss-born conservationist and wildlife photographer, spends much of his time in Central Africa trying to expose the illegal trafficking of wildlife and the inadequacy of CITES to control it. In a report to CITES, he even quotes the head of Guinea’s CITES management authority, Ansoumane Doumbouya, as saying on the record, “the CITES convention is the dirtiest of conventions when it comes to fraud and falsification”. (In August, Doumbouya himself was arrested on charges of helping illegally export hundreds of chimpanzees.) On his website, Ammann has photos that dealers have sent him. One is posing with a baby gorilla as it stares at the floor; another dangles a baby chimpanzee by the leg. Ammann’s own photographs show a slaughtered gorilla group: infants propped up against the adults; gorillas filleted, bellies opened and bodies dried in the sun before being tied with string and sold; and finally, a series on orphan primates kept alive for sale, some stacked in crates, others chained to car wrecks.

Ammann hadn’t heard of Julia or her story, and I filled him in briefly. He wrote this in reply, by way of summary: “Maybe the female gorilla at Melbourne Zoo had, in the end, a better life in Australia than she would have had in Africa.”


On a grey overcast day I visit Melbourne Zoo and watch the gorillas. Otana, Kimya and their baby, Kanzi, are sitting a little way off, up the hill, but I can see their faces clearly. “Ooo ooo ooo,” a boy in a baseball cap calls out and rattles the bamboo fence that keeps visitors at a distance from the glass. Kimya moves out of view and down the other side of the hill, her baby hanging upside down on her back. Otana follows.

Later, when I walk the perimeter, past the gibbons and capuchins, I find the three gorillas at the bottom of a grassy escarpment. The two adults are sitting on their haunches, Otana dozing with his eyes half-open and Kimya holding her head in her black hands. They stare at the glass but their gaze seems to flicker around the onlookers. Baby Kanzi explores a patch of dirt between them. “Koala!” a toddler shouts. Her father gently corrects her. People come and go. One family waves at the baby gorilla through the glass. “Hello! Hello?” they call out. “Hello?” The baby looks up at the window, her dark eyes curious. After the waving family depart, she holds up one of her tiny black hands, moving it experimentally.

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sportInto the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests and Quarterly Essay 45 ‘Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals’Her work has been published in the Age, the Big IssueThe Best Australian EssaysThe Best Australian StoriesGriffith ReviewColors and Dazed & Confused.

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December 2015 - January 2016

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