At the tail end of a year filled with hardship and much uncertainty, I’m delighted to indulge—if for but a moment—in the kind of celebrity activism I wish we’d see more of. Giving a voice to those who cannot speak, the glorious “Goddess of Pop,” Cher, has made it her mission to ensure that the world’s loneliest animals don’t continue to suffer in silence. After freeing Kaavan the elephant from a miserable existence in isolation in Islamabad, she has turned her efforts to Bua Noi, a gorilla that has spent the last three decades in a shopping mall in Bangkok.
We know Cher for her classic tunes and statuesque demeanor, but I’m singing her praises today for some of the philanthropic efforts she has quietly dedicated her time and money to over the years. From supporting Alicia Keys’s charity, Keep a Child Alive, which helps vulnerable children around the world suffering from some of the physical, social, and economic impacts of HIV/AIDS to advocacy for The Heroes Project, which works to empower veterans and wounded warriors, she’s an iconic role model to which any of us might aspire.
In 2020, she focused her attention on helping to facilitate the release of animals held captive in cruel conditions. Earlier this year she worked alongside Four Paws International, an organization dedicated to the welfare of animals suffering under human influence. Her goal was to help return to the wild a male Asian elephant, who had been held in captivity since 1985. The elephant, Kaavan, resided in Pakistan’s Marghazar Zoo, in Islamabad, with his partner, Saheli, until she died of gangrene in 2012.
The complex social dynamics of elephants have been studied for years, and there have been numerous reports of the importance of the family structure—particularly a multigenerational one—on their health and well-being. Imagine, then, the plight of one of these social creatures held in complete isolation. Rightfully earning the title of “the world’s loneliest elephant,” Kavaan was finally approved for relocation in September of this year, finding life after love in an animal sanctuary in Cambodia.
It’s hard to deny an animal its happiness when there’s global media attention on the matter at hand. Cher has that effect.
The next mission has taken Cher’s efforts over to Thailand, where gorilla Bua Noi sits along in a small enclosure in Pata Zoo.
Take a peek on TripAdvisor and you’ll see Pata Zoo described as “hell on earth,” “horrible”, and a “rooftop of aninal [sic] cruelty and hell.” The small, private zoo sits on top of a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, and has been open since 1983. The place has been described as a prison, of sorts, where animals are subjected to intense heat and fumes from the heavy traffic below. This leads to immense stress which, combined with very small enclosures, makes for a miserable existence.
After global pressure from animal welfare organizations including PETA Asia, several welfare laws were indeed found to be broken by the zoo. It almost looked as though Bua Noi might be freed in 2015, but unfortunately, this fell through and still she waits.
Earlier this month, Cher sent a handwritten letter to the Thai Minister of Natural Resources, Varawut Silpa-Archa pleading with him to permit the relocation of Bua Noi to the Congo where she may be part of an important rescue and release program for gorillas. With the support of Free The Wild (a charity co-founded by Cher) and freegorilla.org, she’s hard at work campaigning for Bua Noi’s release. Earlier this month she tweeted to the people of Bangkok asking for support in the matter.
We share 98.3% of our genes with gorillas. They are our second-closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos and certainly not meant to be kept alone, without stimulation, in a cage. With catastrophic threats from hunting and habitat loss already, these animals need our support more than ever before to ensure their survival.
Like elephants, gorillas are known for their complex social relationships. They engage in play, with studies showing that they utilize the game of tag to keep them on their toes. Another study has shown that extraversion in these great apes has been linked to a longer life. It’s heartbreaking, then, to consider the deficit of being held in isolation day in, day out.
For now, we sit and wait, but in the meantime, there’s a petition you can sign to help do your part. It can be found here.
Animal cruelty is rife in many parts of the world and can be quite shocking to encounter. Do your best to report it wherever possible. If you’re unsure who to speak to, the Humane Society of the United States is always a good place to start. Even if they’re unable to help, they can often point you in the right direction of who to speak to.
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Photo: Getty Images; Wikipedia Commons