THE BACKSTORY: From Ivan the gorilla to Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants and Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, animals — and their freedom — arouse our passions.
The first charismatic, captive ape I met was Ivan the gorilla.
It was the early 1990s, and the silverback had spent 27 years living alone in a concrete enclosure at a ramshackle shopping center in South Tacoma. Primate experts and animal-welfare activists mounted a PR campaign — including boycotts, marches and letters from school kids — to get the ape moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he could live with other gorillas.
I covered the whole, crazy saga, and even visited Ivan in his new home in Georgia.
I also covered the fierce battle in Seattle over whether two elephants from Woodland Park Zoo should be moved to a zoo in Oklahoma or a sanctuary in California. The zoo option won out over the objections of activists.
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Animals arouse our passions, whether wolves in Eastern Washington, mountain goats in Olympic National Park or the thousands of chimpanzees kept for decades in tiny cages and subject to all manner of experimentation.
I knew famed primatologist Jane Goodall was instrumental in ending chimp research. What I didn’t realize until I read Roger Fouts’ book, “Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees,” was that Fouts — formerly of Central Washington University — also joined forces with her. Communicating by sign language with the chimp Washoe and others, Fouts gained unique insight into the minds and hearts of our closest genetic relatives. He came to regret his own complicity in keeping the highly intelligent, social creatures in captivity — even in its most benevolent forms.
One thing that struck me about Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest is that even though it’s a captive environment, the chimps are free to be their own idiosyncratic selves.
Burrito, the male, raises a ruckus every morning when his hormones are high. Negra, the eldest, likes to hide under a blanket and take frequent naps. Foxie spits water at visitors. Jody gnaws newly planted trees to nubs.
It’s all fine. For once in their long association with mankind, chimps aren’t there to serve people. The people are there to serve the chimps.