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Judge Orders Cincinnati Zoo, Gorilla Foundation To Work Out Dispute

Ndume at The Gorilla Foundation in California.
Courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation
Ndume at The Gorilla Foundation in California.

Updated Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.

A judge in California is directing the Cincinnati Zoo and the Gorilla Foundation to work together on a solution to their dispute over a 37-year-old gorilla named Ndume.U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg late Friday ordered the sides to pursue a joint resolution.

Seeborg says having a court decide Ndume's fate doesn't seem to be in the best interest of the animal.

"The forum of the courtroom may not allow for a full, and fully-informed, evaluation of all of the potential impacts to Ndume of any particular course of action," he writes in the two-page order.

The zoo and foundation are directed to meet for mediation and create a proposal no later than Thursday.

"Accordingly, assuming that both sides in good faith genuinely believe the best interests of Ndume are paramount in this situation, it would behoove all involved, human and gorilla, for the parties to pursue expedited alternative dispute resolution," the order states.

Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard says the zoo will reach out to the foundation again, but only decided to take legal action after previous discussions broke down.

"We've tried for months," Maynard tells WVXU. "I've had personal conversations with Penny Patterson (co-founder) of The Gorilla Foundation and they went nowhere. Naturally we didn't want to create a lawsuit; it's expensive and takes a long time. Suing was a last resort."

In a statement to WVXU Monday evening, The Gorilla Foundation disputes the idea that conversations before the lawsuit were unproductive.

"Multiple Foundation communications asked the zoo to consider meeting with one or more mediators to discuss what would be best for Ndume under the circumstances. As their own record reflects, the Zoo again refused to respond," the foundation writes.

Additionally, the foundation asserts it requested the zoo's travel plan for transporting Ndume prior to the lawsuit and none was provided.

"The Gorilla Foundation welcomes the Order of the Court requiring the parties to submit a joint proposal for a meaningful mediation," the statement says. "The parties need to place Ndume’s feelings, health and comfort first."

The Cincinnati Zoo filed a federal suit against the California-based Gorilla Foundation in October after the foundation refused to return Ndume, who was loaned to it in 1991 as a companion for "Koko," the gorilla who became famous for what was believed to be her ability to communicate with sign language.

Koko died earlier this year and the foundation is refusing to return Ndume because it argues doing so would be detrimental to his health, possibly even causing premature death.

Maynard says transporting gorillas is routine.

"We'll be very careful in all of this," he says. "The important thing to remember is that gorillas are social primates, they live in groups, and he needs to live with other gorillas.

"He does not deserve to be in solitary confinement, which is what he's in now."

The Gorilla Foundation says it is currently attempting to find more gorillas to live with Ndume. However, it argues the Association of Zoos and Aquariums - which has sided with the Cincinnati Zoo in this matter - has "blocked all Foundation attempts to bring more gorillas in to live with him in sanctuary."

It also argues Ndume was living apart from other gorillas at the Cincinnati Zoo prior to his move to California. "They have refused to provide any information concerning how they can avoid keeping him isolated again upon his return, assuming he is able to survive the transfer," an attorney for the foundation tells WVXU in a follow-up email.

The foundation wants the zoo to help find Ndume companions to live at the sanctuary. The zoo tells WVXU it is capable of taking care of Ndume in Cincinnati and integrating him with its other animals.

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.