During the past long weekend, visitors flocked to Pata Zoo at Pata Department Store in Thon Buri to catch a glimpse of "Bua Noi", or "Little Lotus", Thailand's one and only captive gorilla.
It was a popularity boost that followed news that Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa will back a plan to send the 34-year-old gorilla back to the zoo in Germany from where the owner purchased her three decades ago. It is reported that the compensation on offer for the zoo’s loss is around 30 million baht. But Pata Zoo’s executive board has denied any intention to let Bua Noi leave.
It is the second time that the ministry has tried to move the gorilla to new surroundings following persistent campaigns by animal rights groups and the public about her health and well-being, as well as safety following a fire at the store.
Nevertheless, despite opposition and the issue of it being difficult to evacuate her in an emergency, the owners have remained steadfast in keeping the beloved gorilla at the “zoo”, which is located on the 6th and 7th floors of the department store.
In 2013, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation initiated talks with the zoo to move her to a more natural habitat. However, it was reported that the department baulked at the proposed “transfer cost” of between 30-50 million baht.
In the second attempt last week, the executives of Pata Zoo last week released a statement saying they were not certain that Bua Noi could adjust to a new environment. “The ageing gorilla has spent her life at the zoo and has become accustomed to the environment and absence of natural pathogens for more than 30 years,” the statement read.
Pata Zoo obtained Bua Noi in 1992 at a time when Thailand was not party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Also known as “Pata King Kong”, the gorilla was an object of excitement to Bangkok residents. But over the years, as the idea of conservation changed from Victorian-like exotic pet exhibitions to favouring original habitats, animal rights activists and media have stepped up their campaign against the zoo.
There have been a number of minor fires that have substantiated these concerns, especially doubt as to whether the facility could evacuate over 200 animals with any haste in the event of an emergency. On April 15, 2020, a small fire erupted in one section of the zoo. Fortunately, it was put out quickly and there were no reports of any animals being injured or damage to the zoo, which had been temporarily closed because of the city’s lockdown.
It needs to be mentioned that the owner has always taken good care of Bua Noi and her fellow animals. The gorilla has been kept in a 20 by 40 metre cage, mainained at 27 degrees Celsius. Yet, no matter how much attention and love she may have been given, the reality is that a zoo in the penthouse of the department store is a risky place to house so many wild animals.
The environment ministry has a duty to protect the welfare of the animals first and foremost. It must persuade the owner to not only bring Bua Noi out, but also a number of other species inappropriate for being kept in such a place. Bua Noi may no longer be a “wild animal” in the truest sense, but that is still not a good enough reason to make a cage at the top of a department store her home. It is the duty of the ministry to find a way forward, together with the zoo’s owners, and provide these animals with a safer habitat.