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02.06.14

How to Catch a Depressed Gorilla, Japanese-Style

When Ueno Zoo in Tokyo needed to simulate the perilous aftermath of an earthquake, zookeeper Natsumi Uno dressed up as an escaped gorilla. Result: searing performance art to rival anything off-off-Broadway.

Stop the gorilla. No, let the gorilla run free. Look, the gorilla is expressing itself. Oh no, the gorilla is sad. Oh dear: the gorilla has collapsed, perhaps fatally.

The intention was to simulate Ueno Zoo in Tokyo’s response to a breakout of its gorillas following an earthquake. How would the zoo’s 150-large staff, with emergency service back-up, mobilize themselves? The result was less a dramatic stand-off between humans and animals and more a strangely moving piece of performance art.

In footage shot of the event, zoo keeper Natsumi Uno, dressed in a gorilla suit that looked more Teletubbies than dangerous ape, ran down a thoroughfare of the zoo, the mooning expression of her gorilla-face lending this supposedly escaped creature a disconsolate air. She performed little jumps, her head thrown beseechingly to the sky. Her gorilla then beat its chest, clasped its hands to its chest, and then—in a brave attempt at individual defiance of massed brute force—stood up against a line of guards holding netting and banging their poles on the ground.

Video screenshot

It was no good. Realizing she had nowhere to go, Uno’s gorilla then again looked to the gods for salvation, then—this out of nowhere—grabbed her own ass, then fell to the ground, as dramatically as any grand opera diva. Was she dead? Depressed?

Uno’s gorilla ordeal wasn’t over. She was almost run over by a little truck, then staff threw netting over her and put her in the back of the truck and drove her away. One report said she had been “mock-sedated.” Uno didn’t twitch once: what a pro.

“I tried to feel what an animal might feel and realized when they were on the run they would be scared.”

A monkey escaped from an enclosure in Ueno in 2010, and every two years the zoo holds animal escape drills, previously featuring a rhinoceros. The rhinoceros, again looking pretty aimless and beaten down, was made—beautifully—of papier mache. An escaped tiger simulation at another Japanese zoo featured an altogether cooler cat.

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Zookeepers carry an animal keeper dressed in a gorilla costume during a drill to practice what to do in the event of an animal escape at the Ueno zoo in Tokyo on February 6, 2014. About 70 zookeepers participated in the annual drill. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty)

After her starring moment as the fugitive gorilla, Uno said: “In our work there may be times when we need to capture an animal, but we would never be the ones being captured. So I tried to feel what an animal might feel and realized when they were on the run they would be scared.”

The zoo’s director, Toshimitsu Doi, said: “When you’re doing everything routine you forget what it’s like when something out of the ordinary happens. So it’s important to take these opportunities to remember what needs to be done.”

Tell that to the nearby pandas, happily ensconced with their bamboo, magnificently ignoring everything.