Cincinnati Zoo Wins Transfer Order, Federal Judge Sets Return Date For Gorilla Ndume

Jun 7, 2019

Updated 6 p.m.

A federal judge in California is granting the Cincinnati Zoo's request to transfer a gorilla named "Ndume" to Cincinnati on June 13, despite objections from The Gorilla Foundation where he's been living since 1991.

Judge Richard Seeborg didn't go into details in his decision, writing only, "This matter having come before the Court on Plaintiff [Cincinnati Zoo's] Request for Enforcement of Transfer Order, it is hereby ordered that Plaintiff's request for relief is granted. This Court hereby orders [The Gorilla Foundation] to cooperate in good faith and in all respects to effectuate the transfer of Ndume from California to Ohio on June 13, 2019."

The Gorilla Foundation had opposed the Cincinnati Zoo's Thursday request that the judge set a June 13 transfer date, filing its opposition mid-day Friday.

Get Caught Up

Judge Richard Seeborg was asked to decide if the foundation's reasons for wanting a later transfer date were "substantially more compelling" than what had already been debated and decided in his court with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

Seeborg on Thursday gave the foundation until noon Pacific to file its opposition, otherwise he stated he would sign an order by 5 p.m. setting a June 13 transfer date.

The Gorilla Foundation's Friday filing reiterates its concerns about transferring Ndume while he's passing stools containing evidence of Balantidium coli (B. coli), an intestinal protozoan parasite. It also makes several new claims that the zoo is withholding information about Ndume's health and various test results.

The filing includes a declaration from the head veterinarian of England's Aspinall Foundation, Jane Hopper, MRCVS, recommending transportation be delayed.

"In my opinion the transport should be delayed until the gorilla has completed a course of medication to treat the Balantidium coli, all symptoms have resolved, and further tests have shown that the gorilla is no longer shedding Balantidium coli," she states. "Further diagnostics may be necessary if symptoms do not resolve. I have never transported a gorilla that has the clinical signs of diarrhea and inappetence and has tested positive for Balantidium coli. I believe it would be endangering the gorilla's health to do so."

The zoo, in previous documents, has said seven veterinarians involved in Ndume's care believe his B. coli condition is not such as to prevent him from being transported.

The Gorilla Foundation's filing suggests the zoo is withholding the results of a cardiac ultrasound. The foundation alleges the zoo says the ultrasound was "reviewed by the Great Ape Heart Project, but they have provided no records. At this point, the [zoo] cardiologist claims his heart looks fine, while an entirely independent cardiologist says the best he can tell (without better images) is that Ndume's heart is abnormal."

The foundation says it received no response from the zoo when it asked if the images were submitted to the Great Ape Heart Project. It also alleges the zoo cardiologist didn't request better images.

One of the zoo's chief reasons for transferring Ndume as soon as possible is that he is living in isolation at the foundation and needs to be around other gorillas. The foundation says elderly male gorillas often "separate from their group and live solitarily." It also says Ndume's urinary cortisol level - an indication of how he's doing living alone - "has routinely been low, indicating he has been doing well in this regard at [The Gorilla Foundation]."

The Back Story

Seeborg in February ordered Ndume be returned to the Cincinnati Zoo from The Gorilla Foundation. Ndume had been living there alone following the 2018 death of "Koko," the gorilla famous for her alleged knowledge of sign language.

The Cincinnati Zoo filed a federal suit against the California-based The Gorilla Foundation last October after the foundation refused to return Ndume, who was loaned to it in 1991 as a companion for Koko. The foundation argued doing so would be detrimental to Ndume's health, possibly even causing premature death.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, PETA and eventually the court sided with the Cincinnati Zoo.

In the court documents and emails this week, the zoo argues Ndume is fit and ready for travel, for which he has been trained to voluntarily enter his traveling crate. The zoo wants to set a June 13 transfer date.

The Gorilla Foundation, however, is concerned about levels of B. coli found in Ndume's stool. The foundation wants to postpone any transfer until Ndume has had three negative stools.

"Ndume is stooling frequently, sometimes forcefully when mixed with gas, and over the last three days has reverted to puddles of loose, cow pie and soft feces," the foundation's Christa Nunes writes in an email provided to the court by the zoo. "In addition, Ndume left two piles of regurgitated food on the floor after lunch on Tuesday and has started rejecting one of his food items (beans with probiotic). This presents serious risks to him and any people working with him, which can, and should be avoided."

In an order late Thursday, Judge Seeborg gave The Gorilla Foundation until 3 p.m. Eastern Friday to object or he would sign the zoo's requested order.

"Defendants are advised, consistent with the prior order, that absent a compelling showing going beyond that previously presented, plaintiff's proposed order for transfer on June 13, 2019 will be signed and filed by 5:00 p.m. on June 7, 2019," Seeborg wrote.

Seeborg issued an order Wednesday stating "the expectation remains that Ndume will be transferred no later than June 30, 2019, if safe, but at such earliest possible time that is both practical and safe."