‘To die of boredom’: The struggle to free Thailand’s mall gorilla | Thailand

HWith a handful of green beans, Bua Noi gazes through the iron bars and glass of his house at visitors busy snapping photos of Bangkok’s controversial “mall gorilla.” Much to their dismay, the animal affectionately known as King Kong soon wanders away from the viewing window, past the tire hanging from the back of its sparse enclosure.

“She’s sitting there, dying of boredom,” says Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

Gorillas, native to Africa, are social animals that generally live in family groups. Bua Noi, which translates to Little Lotus, lived alone for much of her 30-plus years on the seventh floor of a desolate shopping complex in downtown Thailand’s Pata Family Zoo.

The primate is at the center of a long-running dispute between Bangkok’s private rooftop zoo and animal rights activists around the world. In 2020, Cher joined those calling for the release of the gorilla, with the singer writing to Thailand’s Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa to express his “deep concern” about Bua Noi’s living conditions. Gillian Anderson joined the outcry, calling for the zoo to be closed.

Celebrities from Cher to Gillian Anderson have expressed concern about Bua Noi’s living conditions. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Activists say the animals have little stimulation and are confined to unnatural enclosures at the zoo, which is on the upper floors of a department store. Bua Noi’s companion died more than a decade ago, according to the Bangkok Post.

Hopes were raised last week when Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment announced plans to purchase and rehabilitate Bua Noi. They were quickly devastated when the owners released a statement saying no talks were taking place and no price had been agreed, despite mentions of 30 million baht (£700,000) circulating online.

Flamingos in a mall in Bangkok, Thailand.  October 25, 2022
Flamingos walk around at Pata Zoo, located in a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Rebecca Root/The Guardian

“Every animal in Pata Zoo is serving a life sentence, a sentence not meted out even to the toughest Thai criminals,” said Jason Baker, senior vice president of Peta Asia. “They could have a meaningful life if they were transferred to a facility that provided them with the mental stimulation and physical comfort of the naturalistic environment that they needed.”

But, in the statement, Bua Noi’s owners said the “aging gorilla” might not adapt to a new environment with new pathogens.

Gorillas can live up to 40 years in the wild and longer in captivity.

Amos Courage of the Aspinall Foundation dismissed those concerns and believes Bua Noi could receive great care at a sanctuary. The foundation has already offered to cover the costs of this transition, as has Free the Wild, a charity Cher co-founded.

Closer to home, Wiek says his rescue center, which is about two hours from Bangkok, could also take him. “Wherever she goes, as long as she gets out of this glass aquarium…that would be great,” he says.

Kung Chan is a 50-year-old Bangkok resident and city guide who visited Pata Zoo in May to relive a visit he made as a child. He says he probably wouldn’t come back after what he saw. “I wasn’t happy. We only stayed 15 minutes…I don’t want to see [Bua Noi] in a room like this.

Elsewhere around the zoo, an orangutan observes maintenance work, the concrete hallway of which is partially cordoned off, while rusted panels and peeling walls make up the aesthetic of this aging zoo. Flamingos roam freely and monkeys forage for food which visitors can purchase upon arrival.

An animal at Pata Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand.  October 25, 2022
Pata Zoo visitors can buy food to feed the animals. Photograph: Rebecca Root/The Guardian

Wiek says, “The bottom line is that the place needs to be shut down…raising money to get a gorilla out of this zoo by the government seems like an ethical thing to do, but it’s not. We have to find a solution for all the animals in the zoo,”

Pata Zoo declined to comment beyond its statement in response to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Zoo owner Kanit Sermsirimongkol has previously dismissed claims that the animals are being mistreated.

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