Seven stories above a shop floor hawking cheap perfume and nylon underwear, Thailand’s “shopping mall gorilla” sits alone in a cage — her home for 30 years despite a reignited row over her captivity.
Activists around the world have long campaigned for the primate to be moved from Pata Zoo, on top of a Bangkok mall, with singer Cher and actor Gillian Anderson adding their voices in 2020.
However, the family who owns Bua Noi — whose name translates as “little lotus” — have resisted public and government pressure to relinquish the critically endangered animal.
The gorilla has lived at Pata for more than three decades, but her case made headlines again this month after the zoo offered a 100,000 baht (US$2,919) reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever graffitied “Free Bua Noi” on one of the mall’s walls.
The upset comes as Thailand welcomes back tourists after the COVID-19 pandemic, many drawn to the kingdom’s wildlife — and ease of access.
The zoo represents a snag in its shift from a country infamous for tiger selfies and abused elephants, to the kingdom trying to position itself as more environmentally friendly.
Authorities have passed new environmental legislation, mostly targeted at preventing the abuse of native-born animals, and these laws do not necessarily cover privately owned zoos such as Pata — or non-indigenous creatures such as Bua Noi.
“[Pata] can still open because the wild animal conservation and protection act zoo section has not been enforced yet,” said Padej Laithong, director of the national wildlife conservation office.
Animal welfare regulations are monitored at only eight state-linked zoos, and with private facilities, officials are more worried about them fulfilling licensing requirements.
Pata had applied for a license extension before theirs expired, Padej said, adding he was mostly concerned over the building’s fire safety — not the animals’ welfare.
“All of these details must be answered before the license can be renewed, suspended or revoked,” he said.
A representative for Pata Zoo did not return multiple requests for comment, but the zoo has blamed foreigners for the criticism, saying that zoos around the world house gorillas without problems.
“No citizens of any country in the world have attacked their country for possessing gorillas, except in Thailand,” the management said in a six-page statement published after the graffiti incident.
They said the gorilla has been well cared for throughout her life, despite the creature costing more to support than she has brought in.
Bua Noi was reportedly three years old when she was brought over from Germany in 1992. With the average lifespan of the Eastern Gorilla being more than 40 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, she has spent much of her life at Pata.
“She needs to get out of it,” said Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a sanctuary that aims to educate people and rehabilitate animals.
“She is not able to see the sun, the moon. She’s in a cement box with glass windows,” Wiek said.
As international pressure to release Bua Noi grew last year, the family owned zoo rejected a reported 30 million baht offer from Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, saying that the gorilla was too old to be rehomed.
However, activists say this misses the point, as the cage holding the gorilla — a highly sociable animal that would live in tightly-knit family groups in the wild — is unsuitable.
“She needs to be among her own kind, or at least be outside and have some chance to see things, experience nature, birds flying around,” Wiek said.
Other animal rights groups have gone further, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — which has staged multiple protests over the years — saying that Bua Noi was “suffering from extreme psychological distress.”
Each weekend, visitors take the rickety lift up to the zoo, eventually climbing out to a rooftop Bua Noi shares with macaques, orangutans and tropical birds.
Scruffy pygmy goats greet visitors before they are directed toward Bua Noi.
There the massive gorilla looks set to remain, stuck behind iron bars and glass windows, with only a swinging tire for company.
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