The price of freedom: Thailand's last gorilla stuck in the horror zoo


The Pata Zoo on the roof of a dingy shopping centre in Bangkok is often dubbed the "saddest zoo in the world". It is home to Bua Noi, Thailand's only gorilla. Photos: Carola Frentzen/dpa

Bua Noi lies listlessly in the far corner of her enclosure, surrounded by concrete, bars and thick glass, with only a few ropes and a car tire for distraction during her 30-year confinement.

But the crowd of visitors at the privately run Pata Zoo on the roof of an old Bangkok mall wants to see more of the female gorilla. An employee lures Bua Noi ("Little Lotus") with a sachet of milk.

Finally she gets up, lumbers past the only patch of sunlight in the 10m by 20m pen and comes closer.Dozens of cell phones snap and film the only gorilla in the whole of Thailand.

She in turn stares blankly outwards in an echo of the poem Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote about a caged panther.

"(Her) vision, from the constantly passing bars, has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else. It seems to (her) there are a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world."

While the lines could have been written for Bua Noi, they reflect conditions in the entire Pata Zoo. The gloomy enclosures and cages where hundreds of monkeys, reptiles and birds languish are often referred to as the "horror zoo".

There have been many attempts to get Bua Noi resettled in an environment where she can spend the last years of her life in dignity and in the midst of nature.Numerous animal rights activists and celebrities such as pop icon Cher campaigned for this, while more than 117,000 people have so far signed a petition on feeding one of the animals at the Pata Zoo. Visitors feeding one of the animals at the Pata Zoo.

"A life of boredom and loneliness is the cruellest fate of all for our primate cousins," the petition says.

At times it seemed there could be progress in the saga. Suddenly in autumn, the Thai Environment Ministry said the gorilla's owners wanted 30 million Thai baht (RM3.9mil) for her release. Then she could be taken to a zoo in Germany, where she was said to have been initially acquired.

The announcement immediately made headlines, but the Thai zoo later denied the money request on its Facebook page, saying Bua Noi was too old to adjust to a new environment and was being well cared for. Nevertheless, her fate caused a renewed stir, not only in Thailand – but also internationally.

In reality, according to animal rights activist Daniel Stiles, the gorilla did not come from Germany but probably from Equatorial Guinea, where she was caught as a baby and smuggled to Thailand in the late 1980s.

"She was sold in Africa by a German animal dealer directly to Thailand," agrees Daniel Merdes, head of the NGO Borneo Orangutan Survival Germany (BOS).

Merdes has long campaigned for the liberation of all animals from the zoo, especially the equally tormented orangutans and many other primates like lemurs and macaques.For Bua Noi, he believes the only solution given her age is to take her to a sanctuary in Thailand.

"Another long, traumatising journey would be life-threatening or animal cruelty – whether to Germany or Africa."Edwin Wiek is one person who offered to take her into his care.

The Dutchman is the founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand and has for many years run a nature sanctuary in Phetchaburi, about 200km from Bangkok. Most recently, the tigers of the bankrupt Phuket Zoo were accommodated there.

"We believe that it would not be morally right to pay an enormous sum of money for the star of the Pata Zoo," Wiek says of the hefty reported cost of freeing the gorilla. "We also want to reach a deal for all the animals in the zoo – or at least the primates."

But the owners of Pata Zoo don't seem interested – probably because business is booming – and they say Bua Noi is fine.

Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa appeared also to draw a line under the matter: "Pata Zoo has promised to take care of them until their last day. And as her owner, it has the right to do so."

Meanwhile, the interminable weeks and months at the zoo continue for Bua Noi and her neighbours, much to the dismay of their advocates.

"No animal should have to live in such a dark concrete dungeon," says Merdes. "No green, just grey and the shrill screams of the other animals. I can't understand how visitors feel entertained here." – dpa

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