Apes of Wrath
by Bob Black
From the Associated Press (which did such a bang-up job on the Iraq war), dateline
Boston, September 29, 2003:
|A 300-pound gorilla will be kept off display after it escaped from its
zoo enclosure and roamed through the Franklin Park Zoo and along nearby
streets for nearly two hours before it was sedated with tranquillizer darts,
according to Zoo New England CEO and President John Linehan.
Even zoos, it turns out, have CEO’s. Undoubtedly so do circuses, and
I don’t mean the one in Washington. So does every other institution which
once thrilled children with icons and images and visions of another life, a
life of magic and marvel. Of course now they view images quite as exciting or
more so when they go on-line. But a zoo or a circus (they are not too different),
even in our flattened down era, puts on a show which, for all its phoniness,
surpasses anything virtual.
|18 year old Courtney Roberson worked at the zoo and was taking 2 year
old Nia Scott, her friend’s little sister, for an outing when Little
Joe escaped, according to family members. The gorilla grabbed the child,
threw her to the ground and jumped on her, according to Dale McNeil, Scott’s
If so, there was remarkably little harm done: “Neither zoo officials
nor Boston Police could provide any information on the injuries. But family
members said Scott had a gash on her cheek and needed several stitches. Roberson
[who was not thrown to the ground and jumped] was bitten on the back and scratched
on the leg, said her mother, Shamika Woumnm.” (I find her name even less
likely than her testimony.) Clearly the family members (each with her own surname)
saw their chance for a score and wasted no time creating evidence.
The accusations against Little Joe are grave but, I suspect, self-serving. If
a 300 pound gorilla jumped on a two year old girl, I would expect her to incur
serious injury, if not death, but probably not just a gash on the cheek
For a rounded picture, we need to look at it from Little Joe’s point of
view. From the Associated Press we further learn:
|In August, the 5 foot, adolescent gorilla also escaped from its section
of the Tropical Forest exhibit, which had a 12-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep,
moat. No one was hurt then, and zoo officials installed electrified wires
to keep him from escaping again.
The Associated Press story, aided by the family’s litigation-oriented
statements, is all too obviously scripted under the influence of the King Kong
and Mighty Joe Young films, with adjustments for details. Little Nia Scott is
Fay Wray. Mighty – er, Little Joe is framed, perhaps literally, by these
evocative antecedents, which it is not necessary for the word-thrifty Associated
Pressman to mention because they are deeply rooted in popular consciousness.
Little Joe, at a first pass from the sensitive, anonymous Associated Press reporter,
is strikingly depicted as an African-American rapist: “The gorilla grabbed
the child, threw her to the ground and jumped on her, according to Dale McNeil,
Scott’s godmother.” Then, and only after that impression has sunk
in, the AP journalist indicates that Little Joe is perhaps as much like Houdini
as he is like King Kong. Little Joe has twice thwarted the best efforts of his
captors to hold him in bondage. Not a 12 foot moat, not even an electrified
fence stopped the 5 foot tall, 300 pound young primate. The movie the AP guy
should have reviewed, at least in his mind, before writing his story was not
King Kong or Mighty Joe Young but The Great Escape.
|Young male gorillas like Little Joe, who was born in captivity, pose problems
because of their agility and restlessness, according to Linehan.
“They go through a stage where, physically and psychologically, they’re
growing much stronger, and become much more lean and long, and containment
can be an increasing challenge at that age,” he said.
Other young male primates go through the same stage. Some of them formed the
anarchist Black Blocs in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere. Others disperse their
“agility and restlessness” in frat parties, liberal politics, music
subcultures or even by joining the Army to meet cute dumb hillbillies like “Daisy
Mae” Jessica Lynch. As that astute psychologist/CEO Linehan explains,
they go through a stage where they’re becoming strong (which, after the
indignities of childhood, is a heady realization) and naturally they cast about
for something to test their strength against. For Little Joe, there was an only
and obvious challenge: his captivity.
I used to live in the Boston area. I knew exactly where Little Joe escaped from,
and where he was recaptured. Needless to say, there was nowhere for him to live
in Boston as the magnificent animal that he is. He would not survive the coming
winter. And since he was born in captivity, he would not even survive in the
rain forest where gorillas belong, were he released there. This the CEO obviously
does not intend for his investment, since Little Joe is one of 6 of the exhibition
gorillas he has acquired since 1998. Except that now Little Joe, after his recent
excursion, is not on exhibit – he’s locked down -- which is perhaps
a partial victory for Little Joe. I remember Kirk Douglas, in Spartacus, howling
in his cell, “I am not an animal!” Would it have made any difference
if he were?
Truth being, as Nietzsche taught us, multi-perspectival, we might set the measured,
classical restraint of the Associated Press story beside the romantic exuberance
of the version in the New York Daily News (“Teen Was Helpless Against
Raging Ape,” Sept. 30, 2003). Much of the story is the same, as we might
expect, since the writers are both American Journalists pledged to Objectivity,
but the Daily News story focuses on the romantic interest. For it seems that
Little Joe is not the only 300 pound adolescent primate in the picture. “He
was too strong for me, and I’m a big person,” says teenage nanny
and zoo employee Courtney Roberson. “I weigh close to 300 pounds.”
The big lug! In this, slightly more plausible version, Little Joe knocked Little
Nia out of Roberson’s hands “and stomped on her before going after
Curiously, there is nothing about what happened to Roberson, or what happened
at all, after Little Joe’s “going after” her. Presumably he
did nothing ungentlemanly. Since the incidents recounted could not have taken
more than a minute, and Little Joe was on the loose for two hours, evidently
once he got a good look at Roberson he betook himself elsewhere. Love hath no
fury like a woman scorned. And did Little Joe “jump on” Little Nia
(AP) or “stomp” on her (Daily News)?
According to Nia’s godmother, “When he snatched the baby, the gorilla
took the baby and ran with it. And when he went to run, he turned around and
he looked at Courtney and he dropped the baby and ran after Courtney”
– contradicting her immediately previous statement that Little Joe stomped
Little Nia. Dropping is not stomping. Or did he drop-kick her? By the time the
case comes to trial, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
The Daily News, then, departs from the Hollywood paradigm of the Associated
Press – this is not a Fay Wray situation at all. Here the helpless, innocent
human female, Little Nia, was a sort of bystander who got in the way. This was
something between Little Joe and Big Courtney Roberson, who probably looked
more like a young female gorilla in heat than any animal the born-in-captivity,
hormonally charged up Little Joe had ever seen. She may have played on that.
There’s some monkey business here. After Little Joe’s August breakout,
“zoo officials installed electrified wires to keep him from escaping again,”
in addition to the 12 foot wide, 12 foot deep moat. How did he get past all
of that? “There’s a lot we have to find out, and we’ll be
reviewing what happened,” as CEO Linehan is quoted in both stories as
saying, so it must be true.
I have a theory. It was an inside job. Little Joe got out just before closing
time, i.e., just when many zoo employees were probably getting off work. I think
Big Courtney Roberson was one of them. She claims to have been taking Little
Nia “for an outing” – not at the zoo, which was closing –
but apparently right outside, although the neighborhood has no other attractions.
I think Roberson, recalling the publicity around Little Joe’s first escape,
turned off the juice and let him out, and then planted herself, babe in hand,
in his path. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were the aggressor. I think
what Courtney was courting was a juicy lawsuit, or a tryst, or both.
If I am right, the “raging ape” was the victim here in a most immediate
way. He was set up and he was exploited. But if I am wrong he is still a victim,
but in that case not the only one. Incarceration in a zoo is a far more serious
wrong than a bite on the back from a runaway gorilla.
Now that we know that we share something like 98% of our DNA with Little Joe
and his kind, we might rethink our relations with gorillas. Did I mention the
Washington Zoo? About 15 years ago, a visiting Slovenian anarchist, Gregor Tomc,
joined me for a visit there. An anti-Communist dissident, he was especially
curious to see the pandas donated by the Red Chinese. (Nobody calls them the
“Red Chinese” any more. Why not? They haven’t changed.) The
monkey house depressed him: “They’re too human,” he said.
I know what he meant. I spent a minute alone before a gorilla in a cage. I looked
him in the eye and he looked me in the eye. Anyone could see the intelligence
and the pain – and it was in his eyes too. Tomc was quite right but I
would rephrase what he said. ‘We’re too animal” is more like
it. The enslavement of Little Joe and so many other animals eerily reminiscent
of ourselves really indicates our failure to come to terms with our own nature,
which is an animal nature. In domesticating animals we have made ourselves the
ultimate domesticated animal. For us to escape, on an individual basis, from
civilization – from the state, the market, the class system, from religions
and moralities – that is scarcely more realistic than for Little Joe to
pass a quiet winter in Boston where he was recaptured, “near a football
But we do differ in an important way from our fellow animals. We have language.
Recent research establishes that this is not the qualitative break it was long
thought to be. Gorillas appear to have a rudimentary vernacular language, and
they can even be taught English sign language in controlled circumstances. Noam
Chomsky does not believe this, not because it isn’t true, but because
it refutes his Cartesian linguistic theory. He is like those 17th century prelates
who looked through Galileo’s telescope and denied what they saw because
it could not be true. In tribute to Chomsky’s Scholastic obtuseness, the
researchers who study Koko and her fellow gorillas have named their dumbest
gorilla student “Nim Chimsky.”
Language – especially written language – has served as an instrument
of domination. Like most truths about the life we live, this one sounds extravagant
or overstated or metaphorical, but that is only because it is so difficult to
stand apart from that life, if only in thought, to see it as it is. It is a
finding of sober archaeological fact that for the first one thousand years of
writing (in ancient Sumer – now known as Iraq), it was devoted exclusively
to government record-keeping and occasional chest-thumping by the Ozymandias-style
autocrats who still rule in the Cradle of Civilization, only now they are American.
Literacy was so restricted to bureaucrats that Hammurabi, for instance, probably
could not read the Code of Hammurabi. While the Word connects, it also separates.
It became possible, then actual, for the Word to replace its referent in reality,
or even to replace a referent where there is nothing to replace (“God”
springs immediately to mind, but “Country” right up there too).
The question is whether there is any other way than through language to get
out of what language has gotten us into. Even those who say “no”
contradict what they say just by saying it. Language posits the only possibility,
if there is one, of the Great Escape. And it has to be a Great Escape, a collective
adventure, because anything less than that is just like Little Joe busting out
to – to where? to what? That’s just it. Little Joe got out, but
while he had a place to escape from, he had no place to escape to. I wonder
what he thought of the streets of Boston which he wandered for two hours. He
could hardly have found there what he was looking for, if he’d even thought
that far ahead. I know I never did.
I have given my reasons for doubting whether Little Joe went ape, but even if
he did, going ape is something apes never do in the wild and in the society
(for they have one) of other apes. Going human is really a better, if also an
inadequate description of what he is accused of doing. Our prisons – our
human zoos -- are filled with humans who have gone ape, which really just means,
stir-crazy. They experience domestication literally with a vengeance. Elsewhere,
in school or in the workplace, it’s not usually so obvious. But your boss
has made a monkey out of you all the same. Alexander Pope wrote a couplet –
about a dog, not an ape, but he was saying the same thing I am (Kew was a royal
|I am his Highness’ dog at Kew
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
Free Little Joe and all other political prisoners! A zoo and a circus –
these words are not only effective metaphors for our civilized society, they
really surpass metaphor by verging on straight reportage, much like the Objective
reportage of the Associated Press and the Daily News. It is no accident that
we so often reach for one of these words to disparage some feature of the political
or social scene. They fit the hand so well.
It never required DNA evidence, not for anyone “with ears to see,”
as Ivan Stang once phrased it, to notice that the animals deservedly called
the great apes are amazingly like ourselves. I have never understood how a creationist
moron could visit a zoo and look at the primates and come away with his Bible
bigotry intact. He is, I suppose, our own Nim Chimsky. Unfortunately, our Nim
Chimsky has the right to vote.
Bob Black Born 1951, Detroit, Michigan; B.A., University of Michigan, 1973; J.D., Georgetown University, 1977; M.A., 1984, University of California (Berkeley); M.A., State University of New York (Albany), 1996; LLM., State University of New York (Buffalo), 2005; author of The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985), Friendly Fire (1992), Beneath the Underground (1994), Anarchy after Leftism (1996), and other texts including nine law journal articles; resident of Albany, New York since 1988.