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.

Life wasn't too bad for King the gorilla back in the summer of 1996. Despite his solitary and obviously inadequate living quarters -- a small concrete enclosure at Monkey Jungle in South Dade -- King benefited from the devoted attention of his keepers and fans. He routinely worked through a number of tricks with his trainer, clapped along during weekly music-therapy sessions, enjoyed occasional flamenco dance performances by a Monkey Jungle volunteer, and loved to watch Barney on television.

But then King's world got a bit crazy. His Monkey Jungle owners came to believe that, as the lone gorilla at the tourist attraction and research facility, King would benefit from some companionship. So they decided to conduct an experiment: They moved in a group of chimpanzees next door.

The sensitive, middle-aged King (he's about 28 years old), however, couldn't take the vociferous and mischievous chimps, especially when they screamed during his once delightful interludes with the music therapists and their guitars and tapes -- the sessions were part of an anthropology research and "enrichment" project, one of many conducted with King over the years. The gorilla was driven to distraction and even began banging his head against the concrete walls. The frustrated music therapists gave up, and the anthropology student overseeing the project left town. Eventually the chimps moved to another part of the facility.

But that was only a prelude to the upheaval to come. That same summer a long-simmering controversy began to boil. For years animal rights advocates and primate experts had been displeased with King's living conditions, but there was little public outcry until last year, when two major animal protection organizations launched a media blitz geared to inflame public sentiment against King's keepers and to garner support for moving him out of Monkey Jungle. The campaign, which continues on the Internet, on television, in newspapers, and by mail hasn't accomplished its main goal of removing King from Monkey Jungle, but it certainly has made him a celebrity. He has probably received more attention during the past year and a half than he ever did in his youth as a Las Vegas stage and circus performer. (He came to Monkey Jungle in 1979.)

Of course, no one knows what the ape himself is thinking, but the people at Monkey Jungle say they aren't about to let him go, and now they are promising big changes in his living conditions. Such promises, however, are nothing new, and critics don't expect much of anything to change. But as a result of the negative publicity from the ongoing animal rights campaign and the pledges of support from several prominent local citizens, King's life may improve.

"I hate the publicity King has gotten, because King is not mistreated," says Ann Rubino, wife of prominent criminal defense attorney Frank Rubino. "He is loved by everybody there, trust me." The couple, proud owners of a squirrel monkey named Frankie Jr., is among the leaders of an effort to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to build King a nice new home on Monkey Jungle's grounds. "He would love to have his own area," Rubino continues, "but he wouldn't like to be away from the people he loves. If I thought what those animal activists say was true, believe me, I'd be the first to get him out of there."

The Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF), with the moral support of other groups and primate experts, insist that King lives in wholly inadequate conditions and that the only remedy is to put him where he not only gets to roam in more natural surroundings but learns to socialize with other gorillas, not humans. PAWS and ARFF staffers freely admit their aim is to make people so angry about King's situation that public pressure will force facility president and co-owner Sharon DuMond to transfer King to Zoo Atlanta, a respected rehabilitator of captive gorillas, where he could live in a spacious enclosure and have contact with several other gorillas.

DuMond and her brother took over Monkey Jungle operations about ten years ago. Their parents, Frank and Mary DuMond, had themselves inherited the facility from Frank's parents, who founded Monkey Jungle in 1933. Since the DuMonds legally own King, there's not much anyone can do to force them to give him up, barring a government determination of abuse or unacceptable living conditions. Although Monkey Jungle lost its American Zoo and Aquarium Association accreditation several years ago, it wasn't due to problems with animal welfare. The facility always passes requisite state and federal inspections. So negative publicity is one of the few ways outsiders can attempt to influence the gorilla's destiny.

"Visit Monkey Jungle and learn the demeaning of life," trumpeted a half-page advertisement placed in the Miami Herald three months ago by PAWS and ARFF. The ad included a photograph of King behind bars and a clip-out coupon to be mailed to ARFF declaring support for moving King to Atlanta. ARFF says it has received almost 6000 coupons and plans a demonstration at Monkey Jungle sometime in January.

After ARFF and PAWS began contacting the media last year, reports about King were broadcast on at least three television programs. In early 1997, WSVN-TV (Channel 7) aired footage of King banging his head against a wall. About a month ago, when a WPLG-TV (Channel 10) news crew arrived at Monkey Jungle to tape a segment about King, no one from the station mentioned that one of the people assumed to be a Channel 10 employee was really the managing director of ARFF, Joe Taksel, who maintains he wouldn't have been allowed inside had his identity been known. "That [Channel 10 report] is going to be one drop in the bucket to get that guy out of there," Taksel asserts. "The whole world is ready to send him to Atlanta except a few people who want to keep him in a filthy concrete bunker."

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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