I recently spent an hour observing wild gorillas from a few feet away. In fact, one gorilla got so close to me that he was able to chew on a shirt I had wrapped around my waist. It was a great experience. One I will never forget.
But is this kind of close encounter a good thing?
Other close encounters that I have had with great apes, include visiting an orangutan rehabilitation center in northern Borneo and going on a chimpanzee hike in west-central Uganda. Both allowed for very close contact with the animals.
On Borneo, one of the young orangutan’s decided he wanted our water bottle, and had a short wrestling match with my son. (We obviously shouldn’t have been carrying the water bottle.)
A year or so ago, I watched an excellent documentary by Werner Herzog titled: Grizzly Man (2005). It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell who lived in the Alaska wilderness in close proximity to grizzly bears. Bears, like humans, are both herbivores and carnivores.
Much of the documentary consists of footage shot by Treadwell. The story ends, as might be expected, with one of the grizzlies attacking, killing, and partially eating Treadwell and his girl friend. The bear in question, appeared to be more surly than most, perhaps even bordering on being mentally ill; he had definitely become unpredictable. Herzog’s lesson is that wild animals are truly wild.
There is another point of view. Charlie Russell, who has studied bears for 42 years, wrote of Herzog’s documentary:
Herzog is a skillful filmmaker so a large percentage of those who watch the movie Grizzly Man, overlook Timothy’s amazing way with animals even though to me this stands out very strongly. The fact that Timothy spent an incredible 35,000 hours, spanning 13 years, living with the bears in Katmai National Park, without any previous mishap, escapes people completely. Even with his city-kid background, I found myself mesmerized by what he could do with animals. Most people now see him only the way Herzog skillfully wanted his audience to see him; as an idiot who continually “crossed nature’s line,” what ever that means. . .
Off the east coast of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, tour operators run small boats out to have a close encounter with the whales that winter there. Apparently, it is not unusual for sightseers to get close enough to touch the whales (they too have become habituated to humans). While the boat trip looks like fun, it would seem that one wrong move by a whale could easily capsize or even destroy a small boat.
Back to the gorillas, who are herbivores. We were in very close proximity to very large, very strong (muscular), unpredictable animals. Even though the mountain gorillas had been habituated to humans, they were still very much wild, and capable of being surly. Even though the risk here was probably minimal, there must be a risk. There are also risks and concerns for the animals.
According to humorist Robert Kirby: “Personally, I do not trifle with dangerous animals large enough to have their way with me.” I wonder if that would include animals that have been habituated to occasional human contact? Or is there such a thing as habituation?
While not in the wilds, check out this youtube video of a human baby playing with caged, lowland gorillas at the Kent Animal Park. Is this really a wise parental decision?
Hopefully, close encounters with large mammals (excluding grizzlies) encourages conservation and preservation. Since there are so few mountain gorillas and orangutans left in the wild and since declining whale populations are still a continuing concern, I guess that preservation is the best justification for our intruding into their world. One can only hope that our visits don’t disrupt their lives too much.
Having close encounters with large mammals is frequently not cheap, so hopefully some of the money goes to habitat preservation and encouraging locals to be good stewards and neighbors.