Subira photograph courtesy Dallas Zoo

Animals

CultureMap Posts a Dud After Gorilla Death at Dallas Zoo

An animal's death can make us all emotional. That's when we need facts and context.

Last week, the Dallas Zoo announced on Facebook that a silverback gorilla named Subira had died at the age of 24. I know three zookeepers there. They are some of the most kindhearted, compassionate people you could ever meet. They put in long hours for little pay to care for animals that they love. When one of those animals dies, especially a larger one, they take it hard.

I tell you this for context. Here’s some more context: I don’t know if zoos make any sense. I’ve had conversations with two of the three zookeepers I know about why zoos should even be a thing in today’s world. I mean, keep an animal in an enclosure so you can look at it? However, I love going to the Dallas Zoo. And my zookeeper friends have solid arguments for why zoos do good work and deserve support. So color me ambivalent.

Now let me introduce Teresa Gubbins, a CultureMap writer who once freelanced for D Magazine. Gubbins doesn’t like zoos. That’s fine. But she’s a journalist. When she writes about zoos and dead zoo animals, she should act like a journalist, not a polemicist.

In her CultureMap story, Gubbins implied that the Dallas Zoo’s dereliction of duty led to Subira’s death. Have a look:

Subira was only 24; the typical lifespan of a silverback gorilla is 35-40 years.

The zoo announced his death on Facebook, with an original explanation that he had a cough. They later revealed that the gorilla died of cardiovascular disease, along with an explanation of how cardiovascular disease is completely totally absolutely normal for male gorillas.

“Heart disease is the number one cause of death for male gorillas, which is why our males receive regular wellness checks, including bimonthly heart rate tests as well as a more intensive ultrasound procedure every three years,” their statement says. “Subira’s last heart ultrasound was conducted in 2018 and showed no signs of heart disease, and his latest heart rate measurements had all been normal, which makes his passing all the more sudden and tragic.”

Things are always sudden and tragic at the Dallas Zoo. … Subira is the latest in a long series of animal deaths at the Dallas Zoo.

At that point in her post, Gubbins presents a list of seven large animals that have died at the zoo since 2013. It’s her “long series of animal deaths.” In fact, more than 250 animals have died at the Dallas Zoo since 2013, a lot more than the seven large animals cited by Gubbins. But animals don’t live forever. They die. When you’re taking care of about 2,000 of them, you’ll have deaths with some frequency (about three deaths per month).

What about Subira dying at 24, while the typical lifespan for a silverback is 35 to 40? That sounds bad. I agree. But when things sound bad, a journalist asks questions. I exchanged email with the Dallas Zoo’s PR boss, Kari Streiber. I’ll paste it for you:

Per the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), which guides the management of the gorilla population in AZA-accredited (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) zoos: the median life expectancy for gorillas in AZA zoos is 32.7 years for males and 39 years for females; that is, 50% of gorillas that survive to their first birthday will die before the median life expectancy and 50% die after this age.

Gorillas at the Dallas Zoo: over the last 30 years (1990-2020), nine gorillas have died at Dallas Zoo, ranging in age from 18 to 54 years at time of death. Average lifespan for those gorillas, across both genders, at Dallas Zoo is 35 years. Average lifespan for the three male gorillas who have died in that time is 34.7 years.

The three males who have died over that 30-year time frame, died at 24 (Subira), 37 (Ombom), and 43 (Hercules) years of age.

Current adult gorillas in our collection range in age from 15 to 23.

While Subira didn’t live as long as we’d like (ideally, to the SSP median age of 32-33, or longer), our average age at time of death, especially for male gorillas, is in keeping with — and actually surpasses — the SSP’s findings.

TL;DR version: the Dallas Zoo, based on industry standards, is doing a good job with its gorillas. If Gubbins wants to argue otherwise, or to make the point that gorillas shouldn’t be kept in enclosures at all, then she needs to gather more information and provide more context. It’s our job as journalists to help our readers, not inflame them.

Hang in there, folks. And read critically.

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