Protecting the Future of Animal Loan Agreements

Ndume the Gorilla Returns Home to Cincinnati

In 1991, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (the Zoo) loaned Ndume, a western lowland gorilla, to The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California. For the next 26 years he was companion to Koko, a gorilla famous for her use of sign language. Upon Koko’s death, the loan agreement required Ndume be transferred to an appropriate zoo to live with other gorillas. When Koko passed away in June 2018, Ndume was left without a companion. Because gorillas are intelligent and highly social animals, they should not be isolated from other gorillas. Per the loan agreement, it was decided that Ndume would return to the Zoo.

The Challenge

The Gorilla Foundation refused to go forward with the transfer, arguing Ndume was too old to be shipped and would likely die if he were returned to Cincinnati. The Zoo decided to go to federal court to seek Ndume’s return so he could be with other gorillas at the Zoo. Animal loan agreements are critically important to the protection of endangered species in human care. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gave strong encouragement and support to the Zoo’s position.

Taft in Action

The Zoo filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in October 2018, attempted mediation in the first week of January and won summary judgment in February 2019 – exactly 100 days from complaint to judgment. In preparation for mediation and summary judgment, Taft coordinated obtaining opinions from several internationally recognized primate experts on a compressed schedule. After negotiation of a transfer agreement and order, which was enforced by two additional court orders obtained by Taft, Ndume returned to the Zoo in June 2019, without incident.

Results & Impact

The Zoo was lauded by its peer zoos for how the lawsuit was handled. Dan Ashe, President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said: “When Ndume needed an advocate, they stood up, spoke out, and acted, courageously.”

There is immense value for all endangered species in human care in ensuring that animal loan agreements are properly enforced. If the terms of this loan agreement were not vindicated, the ability of zoos and other institutions to care for and protect gorillas and other endangered species could have been damaged. This litigation was remarkable in both its subject matter – a 350-pound gorilla – and the speed with which the Taft team achieved complete victory for the Zoo.

According to the Zoo, Ndume is now content and adapting well to his surroundings.

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