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Holding a fist full of green beans, Bua Noi stares through the iron bars and glass of her home at the visitors busy taking pictures of Bangkok’s controversial “shopping mall gorilla”. To their dismay, the animal fondly known as King Kong soon saunters away from the viewing window, past the hanging tyre to the back of her sparse enclosure.
“She’s sitting there dying of boredom,” says Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.
Gorillas, which are native to Africa, are social animals that typically live in family groups. Bua Noi, which translates as Little Lotus, has lived alone for much of her 30-plus years on the seventh floor of a desolate city centre shopping complex at Thailand’s family-owned Pata Zoo.
The primate is at the centre of a longstanding dispute between the private rooftop zoo in Bangkok and animal rights activists around the world. In 2020, Cher joined those calling for the gorilla’s release, with the singer writing to Thailand’s environment minister, Varawut Silpa-archa, to express “deep concern” over Bua Noi’s living conditions. Gillian Anderson joined the outcry, calling for the zoo to be closed.
Campaigners say the animals have little stimulation and are confined in unnatural enclosures at the zoo, which is on the top floors of a department store. Bua Noi’s mate died more than a decade ago, according to the Bangkok Post.
Hopes were raised last week when Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said it planned to buy and rehabilitate Bua Noi. They were soon dashed when the owners released a statement saying no talks were happening and no price had been agreed, despite mentions of 30m baht (£700,000) circulating online.
“Every animal at Pata Zoo is enduring a life sentence, something not handed to even the hardest Thai criminals,” says Jason Baker, senior vice president at Peta Asia. “They could have a meaningful life if they were transferred to a facility that would provide the mental stimulation and physical comfort of the naturalistic environment they need.”
But, in the statement, Bua Noi’s owners said the “ageing gorilla” may not adapt to a new environment with new pathogens.
Gorillas can live to about 40 in the wild, and longer in captivity.
Amos Courage at the Aspinall Foundation dismissed those concerns, and believes Bua Noi could be given great care in a sanctuary. The foundation has previously offered to cover the costs of this transition, as has Free the Wild, a charity co-founded by Cher.
Closer to home, Wiek says his rescue centre, which is around two hours outside Bangkok, could also take her. “Wherever she goes, as long as she gets out of that glass aquarium … that would be great,” he says.
Kung Chan is a 50-year-old Bangkok resident and city guide who visited Pata Zoo in May to relive a visit he’d taken in his childhood. He says he likely wouldn’t be back after what he saw. “I was not happy. We only stayed for 15 minutes … I don’t want to see [Bua Noi] in a room like that.”
Elsewhere around the zoo, an orangutan looks on at maintenance work, which has the concrete corridor partially cordoned off, while rusty signs and flaking walls make up the aesthetic of this ageing zoo. Flamingos roam free and monkeys reach out for food that visitors can buy on arrival.
Wiek says: “The bottom line is the place needs to be closed down … fundraising to get one gorilla out of that zoo by the government sounds like an ethical thing to do but it’s not. We need to look at a solution for all the animals in the zoo,”
Pata Zoo declined to comment beyond its statement in response to Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The owner of the zoo, Kanit Sermsirimongkol, has previously rejected claims that the animals are poorly treated.