For the gorilla with everything

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The Independent Culture
Charles Darwin wrote that "he who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than John Locke". What then would the Victorian naturalist have made of this? When the hard day's foraging ends at Longleat Safari Park, in Wiltshire, Samba and Nico, the resident West African lowland gorillas, relax in front of the television with a glass of Ribena. Evolution or atavism? "Darwin probably wouldn't think it was that great," admits Ian Turner, Longleat's assistant chief game warden.

Fifteen years ago, when Samba and Nico were flown over from a zoo in Switzerland, their keepers were looking for ways of alleviating the gorillas' evident boredom during the six-month quarantine period. Unsurprisingly, the higher apes get restless and depressed in this form of solitary confinement. Then Turner saw a TV programme about a gorilla at Columbus Zoo in Ohio whose stress levels had been reduced by the installation of a television in his enclosure. A changed primate, he stopped tearing out his hair, and became markedly less aggressive. But when thieves made off with his set, the old antisocial behaviour patterns returned. Inspired, Longleat wardens used TV to sweeten their gorillas' quarantine; and, once this was over, the apes proved similarly hooked, refusing food and making noisy protests when their entertainment was temporarily removed.

During the day, Samba and Nico wander their island on the lake at Longleat, searching out the fruit, nuts and lettuce scattered each morning by the wardens. At night, when the temperature drops, they return to the warmth of a bijou Japanese-style residence, floating on stilts at the edge of the water. Terrestrial television proved inadequate for this discerning simian audience, and their home has recently been equipped with its own satellite dish. Turner explains: "The reception's not so good when the leaves are on the trees, so we got satellite put in so they could still watch in the summer." The gorillas, who are apparently fond of sports coverage, no doubt approved of the addition. Turner is equally enthusiastic: "Have you seen Sky? There's an ad for Uniroyal tyres with some orang-utans on it, and they love that. They love animal programmes, especially anything with chimpanzees or gorillas. Nico goes for cartoons because of all the funny noises." He also has a rather less explicable fascination with horses. Nico, male, silver-backed and an elderly 35, is a more dedicated viewer than his female companion. Having had the set for 15 years, his knowledge of EastEnders is potentially as comprehensive as our own.

The wardens, many of whom have worked with the gorillas for years, are convinced that the apes are absolutely capable of deciphering the television's light display into representations of the real world. "They see exactly what we see," says Turner. When Planet of the Apes was given a repeat screening, there was an enthusiastic response from the inhabitants of gorilla island. "Nico was darting around the cage. He collected a load of food and sat down in front of the telly and ate it, just like we do," says Turner.

Samba and Nico don't have access to the Radio Times, or any form of remote control device. Choices are made for them by the game wardens. Their set is switched on at 6pm, and cuts out on a time-switch at about 11.30pm; they sleep in until 10 o'clock the next morning. Some thought goes into the selection of their night's viewing. "If there are any wildlife programmes on we usually leave the TV switched to that channel. We've got a video from the States of gorillas interacting - grooming, mothers and babies, playing outdoors" ... and mating, as Longleat's press officer, Claire Kiener, is keen to point out. "It's gorilla porno, really," she explains, brightly. "We showed it to them in the hope that it might encourage them to get romantic." So far, however, it seems they prefer to spend a quiet night in front of the telly.

Gorillas have extremely large brains - larger in relation to their bodies than those of any other land animal except chimpanzees and humans. In the laboratory, they have been encouraged to use basic sign language and crack conceptual puzzles that would baffle contestants on The Krypton Factor. Their lives in the wild, however, are a simple, satisfying round of eating, playing and sleeping. It's theorised, therefore, that the greater part of a gorilla's brain is devoted to social rather than problem-solving activities. Samba and Nico don't have a large clan group in which to explore those possibilities, and, like many humans, have to resort to their television for a sense of community.