Zoo Fights for Custody of Koko’s Gorilla Friend

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A custody battle over a 37-year-old gorilla hit federal court Thursday when the Cincinnati Zoo sued an animal psychologist and her foundation for refusing to return Ndume, a longtime friend of the recently deceased gorilla Koko.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden loaned Ndume to animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson and her organization, The Gorilla Foundation, in 1991. The loan was intended to provide companionship for Koko, the famous sign-language-capable gorilla who has befriended celebrities, including Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams, on television.

According to the zoo, the loan agreement required that upon Koko’s death, Ndume must be returned to the Cincinnati Zoo or another facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Dr. Francine Patterson plays with Koko and his feline friend in 1996. Koko knew 2,000 words in sign language. (Associated Press)

“[The Gorilla Foundation] never had any ownership right in Ndume,” the Cincinnati Zoo states in its 16-page complaint.

Koko and Ndume lived side by side in Woodside, California, at the foundation’s gorilla sanctuary in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 27 years until Koko died at the age of 46 on June 19, 2018. Ndume was intended to breed with Koko, but the two never procreated. They lived in separate enclosures since at least 2013, but they could see and hear each other, according to the lawsuit.

After taking the initial steps to transfer Ndume back to Cincinnati in August, Patterson and the foundation later changed course. They informed the zoo in a Sept. 18 letter that a transfer was not in Ndume’s best interest and that when Ndume overheard a discussion about the transfer, he “reacted by crying, screaming, and banging and shoving objects for 14 hours.”

The zoo claims the foundation’s letter dismissed the “indisputable fact” that Ndume is now living in total isolation from his species.

To address that concern, The Gorilla Foundation asked supporters in September for donations to help it acquire female gorillas to live with Ndume, according to the lawsuit.

The Global Species Survival Plan, a group of scientists, veterinarians and experts that oversee the health and welfare of gorillas in North American zoos, recommended in August that Ndume be transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo “as soon as possible.”

But the foundation stated in its Sept. 18 letter that Ndume’s “unique temperament” and the lack of “precedent for transferring a gorilla to a zoo from a sanctuary environment” leads it to conclude that a transfer would not be in Ndume’s best interest.

The zoo says gorillas are regularly transferred among different facilities and that “there is no scientific basis for [The Gorilla Foundation]’s claim that Ndume is at any increased risk.”

The zoo also claims Patterson and her foundation refused to let its workers visit the gorilla sanctuary in September to prepare for the transfer.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, conversion and replevin, a legal remedy for recovering wrongfully taken property. The zoo seeks a court order directing Patterson and the foundation to immediately give it access to prepare Ndume for transfer to Cincinnati.

The zoo is represented by Simon Frankel of Covington & Burling in San Francisco.

Patterson and the Gorilla Foundation did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment after business hours Thursday.

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