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Opinion: A movie theater for gorillas

People look at a lowland gorillas at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit July 8, 2003 in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People look at a lowland gorillas at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit July 8, 2003 in New York City.

A new sign has appeared outside the gorilla habitat at the Toronto Zoo.

"For the wellbeing of gorilla troop," it admonishes, "please refrain from showing them any videos or photos as some content can be upsetting and affect their relationships and behaviour within their family."

The zoo grew concerned after a 14-year-old gorilla named Nassir seemed especially dazzled by videos held up by visitors on their cellphones.

"I'm not really sure what the content of the videos was," Maria Franke, the zoo's director of wildlife welfare, told us. "Was it gorillas in the wild? A cartoon? I don't know. But it was like Nassir was a little boy. All he wanted to do was watch. It made him be distracted, not interact with his family, or, you know, be a gorilla. He was just so enthralled with the phones and the videos."

Does this sound familiar? Our human DNA is a 98% match to gorillas, after all.

There have been similar stories in recent months about gorillas at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Louisville Zoo, captivated by onscreen diversions.

"Gorillas get bored in captivity," explains Rob Laidlaw, a biologist who is executive director of Zoocheck, a Canadian animal welfare organization. Even in wildlife sanctuaries that give animals sunlight, greenery and room to roam, "they're looking for any opportunity they can find to engage intellectually."

This is a challenge for zoos. They keep animals safe, for conservation and research, and so visitors can marvel at and care about them. But how do they make zoo life a little more engaging for the animals?

Maria Franke says the Toronto Zoo shows their gorillas nature programs: classy documentaries from the CBC and BBC. They seem to especially enjoy watching other gorillas.

I've tried to imagine which movies might make wholesome screen entertainment for great apes.

King Kong? I'm not sure I'd risk their reaction. But Gorillas in the Mist, about Dian Fossey, who famously said, "The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people"? Of course. The Planet of the Apes films, in which gorillas eventually overthrow their malicious human captors? I think they would offer two opposable thumbs up.

I don't know if gorillas would enjoy The Godfather. But I wonder if any silverback who screened it would tell their family group, "Take the banana. Leave the cannoli."

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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