A King and His Not-Quite Castle

Monkey Jungle's owners say their gorilla is as happy as a clam in his cage. Animal activists say he's going bananas.

Dan Wharton of New York's Bronx Zoo, chairman of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association committee that monitors and approves the placement of all captive gorillas in the United States, sees no good reason for King to stay where he is. "In general [the committee's] opinion is fairly straightforward and unwavering," Wharton says. "From a professional gorilla-management perspective, he's in the wrong place. The facilities [at Monkey Jungle] are substandard. This animal needs to be somewhere else where he can be socialized."

Primate experts agree with Wharton, at least in theory, though some primatologists who have worked with King point out a few problems with socialization: King's front teeth were knocked out by former owners long ago, and biting is an important behavior in mating and self-defense. Also, unlike females, some male gorillas live alone in the wild, or join in group activities only rarely. And King has been around humans, not gorillas, ever since he was captured in Cameroon at a very young age. But critics contend those are just excuses to keep King in less than ideal conditions. They point to Ivan, the gorilla who spent almost 30 years alone in a Seattle shopping center, only to be moved in 1994 (after years of campaigning by PAWS) to Zoo Atlanta, where he seems to be happy with his new gorilla friends.

Even most of Monkey Jungle's harshest critics, however, commend the concept of the new 15,000-square-foot gorilla habitat that could be built at Monkey Jungle if only Sharon DuMond can come up with the money (estimated costs run as high as two million dollars). Philadelphia architect Jon Coe, the man who designed Zoo Atlanta's widely praised gorilla enclosure, finished plans this past June for an equally impressive but smaller habitat for King, one that could accommodate other gorillas as well. DuMond says a local organization has agreed to donate materials for the project, and a contractor has promised to obtain the necessary stacks of permits on his own time. Another company, DuMond adds, has told her it will donate some construction labor and materials, but she doesn't yet know how much. "I've been thinking about this forever," she sighs, "but the problem has been the finances and figuring out how to do it. But now because of these generous people who've extended their help, I think it's possible."

Attorney Frank Rubino says he's using some of his noted courtroom creativity to come up with fundraising ideas. "I'm working with an accountant right now to see if King could be ... a nonprofit entity," he explains. "There are a lot of corporate sponsors out there and there are a lot of people who care about him. He's an asset to the county.

"King's habitat is substandard; we concede that point readily," Rubino goes on. "But why don't we band together to help him instead of spending a lot of money to put out bad press and run him off?"

Rubino and his wife are waiting to find out exactly how much money Sharon DuMond would need to complete the first phase of a new enclosure. "If we can get just a portion of it, we can finance the rest," Ann Rubino predicts confidently. "If nothing else I'm going to do this fundraising because Sharon deserves it. She lives for those animals.

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