“Parental controls” on videos shown to gorillas by visitors at Toronto Zoo

This is an interesting development. It is one which demonstrates the intrusion of social media into the “natural world” (Ha ha). We know how people can be addicted to social media videos and postings. It’s so bad that it is affecting the streaming services like Netflix and Amazon prime. This addiction is proving detrimental to the welfare of young gorillas at Toronto Zoo, it is believed. But is it?

Visitors to the zoo are showing the gorillas social media videos and one male gorilla in particular is enthralled by it. His name is Nassir, a teenage bachelor. Visitors show him videos on their smartphone through the glass.

The fun is happening at other zoos in the US such as in Louisville. The picture below is from Louisville Zoo and shows Jelani enthralled with social media videos shown by Lindsey Costello. Using sign language, he tells Costello the kind of videos he enjoys. There are no reports that the zookeepers at Louisville are concerned about parental controls on videos seen by gorillas.

Jelani a gorilla at Louisville Zoo enjoys a vide shown to him by Lindsey Costello
Jelani a gorilla at Louisville Zoo enjoys a vide shown to him by Lindsey Costello. Image: her Instagram account.

But the Toronto zookeepers see this as a problem because Nassir prefers to watch the videos rather than interact with his guerrilla colleagues and behave as gorillas should. They want to keep his world as natural as possible which, frankly, is impossible in the zoo anyway. You wonder whether he’s simply bored with zoo life and seeks entertainment in human-created videos. I’m not sure that there is anything wrong with that.

Toronto Zoo sees it differently. Maria Franke, the zoo’s director of wildlife conservation and welfare has worked at the animal park for more than 30 years. She told the Toronto Star that “We’ve had a lot of members and guests that actually will put their phones up to the glass and show him videos-and Nassir is so into those videos. It was causing him to be distracted and not interacting with the other gorillas and, you know, being a gorilla. He was just so enthralled with gadgets and phones and the videos.”

And so, the zoo has put a sign against the glass of the gorilla enclosure which reads as follows:

For the well-being of gorilla troop, please refrain from showing them any videos or phones has some content can be upsetting and affect their relationships and behaviour within their family. Thank you for your cooperation.

Toronto Zoo

The zoo’s behavioural husbandry supervisor, Hollie Ross, told the Canadian news channel CP24: “When our guests come to the zoo, we want them to be able to see gorillas in a very natural state, and what they would be doing naturally-to sort of connect with them on that level.”

Is that being a little patronising? The gorillas are in a zoo, and a relatively tight space compared to their natural world. It’s hardly natural. No matter how hard they try to make it look like it is.

As it happens, the zoo does show the gorillas videos but they are filtered for content which is beneficial and not damaging to their minds. It’s a case of applying parental controls as I stated in the title. Ross added: “We just want to make sure that we know the content-very much like managing an account for a child.”

I wonder if this is a little human-centric or to use a long word anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is humans seeing the world as centred around humans. It seems that zookeepers are looking down on the gorillas as children who need to be minded. That may be an incorrect assessment. Perhaps gorillas are able to decide for themselves what is good for their minds. And perhaps they need more entertainment and perhaps the videos being shown to them – which apparently are animal videos – may be the correct kind of videos for them to see.

And if Nassir is being pulled away from the group because he is obsessed with these videos perhaps the problem is not the videos but the lack of activity and mental stimulation that he can’t find within the troop. He needs more mental stimulation within the zoo and if I’m correct the problem is not the visitors showing him smart phone videos but the zoo in failing to provide a sufficiently mentally stimulating environment.

There would appear to be another factor which is that a zoo is by necessity within a human environment. There is a lot of interaction between gorillas and humans. This automatically makes the gorilla world unnatural. Showing them videos is an extension of what the zoo has already created.

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Speciesism - 'them and us' | Cruelty - always shameful
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Post Category: Primates