Gorilla Doing Handstands in Viral Busch Gardens Video Stirs 'Adorable' vs. 'Abnormal' Debate
Some call Bolingo's trick in the April 11 Facebook video "impressive," but other say it's "abnormal" and "sensationalist"
On first glance at the video above, filmed recently at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, one would be rightfully impressed with the athletic prowess and intelligence displayed by a gorilla named Bolingo. However, the footage also has its detractors. Many animal advocates feel that primates should neither be in captivity, nor should they be treated as sensationalist “circus”-esque objects of entertainment.
However, the official stance on the matter appears to reside in the eye — or the heart — of the beholder.
“Take a look at this progression of enrichment moments with Bolingo and animal care specialist, Rachel!” the animal park writes in a Facebook post from April 11. “This type of training enables us to build trusting and positive relationships with the animals that call Busch Gardens Tampa Bay home in order to provide them with the most mentally and physically stimulating environment possible. Guests can visit Bolingo and the rest of the Gorilla troop in the Myombe Reserve, every day!”
The Washington Post reports that the animal care specialist, Rachel Hale, told Storyful that her relationship with the gorilla is “very special” and “there is nothing better than seeing Bolingo sprint across the habitat for an enrichment session with me. That will never grow old.”
Unfortunately for Hale and Busch Gardens, many animal lovers and advocates see this type of animal training (or “enrichment” as the zoo calls it) as very old, indeed. So old, in fact, that it has long worn out its welcome.
“It says something about the life of animals in zoos when something like this is deemed useful to keep animals occupied,” Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity at the Born Free Foundation, told the Independent U.K. “The environment just isn’t fit for purpose if they have to resort to such artificial means to keep animals appropriately stimulated … this has all the hallmarks of circuses. It’s not something we should be celebrating.”
Draper went on to say, “The ability of a gorilla to do a handstand should not surprise us. But this video is totally sensationalist and slightly silly.” Plus, says Draper, western lowland gorillas like Bolingo perceive being stared at as a threat. He feels the training of tricks like the handstand are more exploitative than educational or entertaining.
PEOPLE reached out to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay for comment, and Rob Vernon, of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, replied “Viral videos like this at AZA-accredited Busch Gardens Tampa Bay are examples of positive enrichment activities and the personal connections animal care professionals have with the animals at their facilities.”
Additionally, Dr. Chris Dold, Chief Zoological Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, told PEOPLE “This video illustrates a type of enrichment that is perfectly suited to ensuring these animals are healthy and thriving. Ensuring these animals are physically and mentally stimulated is central to the care that we provide, and these types of enrichment sessions are important for the care and welfare of these animals.”
Still, the charity Freedom for Animals, has condemned the video.
“Releasing a video like this to the public is damaging and completely irresponsible,” said the animal protection organization’s spokeswoman, Nicola O’Brien. “This just teaches people that animals can be trained to perform tricks and are here for our entertainment … for the zoo to claim this behavior is ‘good for him’ as some way of justifying this just exposes the fact that they recognize that animals are deprived and restricted in captivity.”
For those keeping track, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is owned by SeaWorld, which is widely criticized for its practice of keeping whales and other sea mammals in captivity. O’Brien and Freedom for Animals believe gorillas should not be kept in zoos, but rather allowed to roam free with their wild peers, out in the jungle.
To this criticism, Dr. Dold tells PEOPLE that despite Bolingo living in a zoo, the animal’s behavior is normal and indicative of the species.
“Our animal care staff and behaviorists embrace these types of natural behaviors, like mimicking, as they work to find new, innovative ways to provide the care that these animals need and deserve. And while this video is a lighthearted and fun way to show the bond and relationship between Bolingo and the animal care specialist, we hope that everyone who sees this video will also be inspired to learn more about the endangered Western lowland gorilla,” says Dold.
“Enrichment for non-human primates has generally focused on complex foraging and environmental diversity, but can certainly be more complex, including mimicry as Bolingo was demonstrating. Bolingo’s environmental interaction was a new way to have fun in his environment. Mimicking a trainer having fun illustrates his ability to learn, his positive interactions with the people that work with him every day, and his comfort in his environment.”
The Busch Gardens Tampa Bay rep suggests those interested in learning more about natural gorilla play instincts to read this Live Science story from 2010 about how primate play is similar to that of humans.