Mourned after being rejected: baby gorilla at heart of zoo row

A mother gorilla clutches the lifeless body of her three-month-old child in an extraordinary, almost human display of emotion.

The moving photograph of 11-year-old Gana carrying her infant's corpse and trying desperately to come to terms with his death captivated Germany, when the images were released yesterday. Staff at the zoo in Münster discovered the baby gorilla, named Claudio, early on Saturday evening. He was lying dead on the floor of the cage he shared with his mother.

Pictures of Gana carrying Claudio on her back and holding him up in her hands were splashed across newspapers and broadcast on television bulletins.

Jörg Adler, 61, the director of the zoo, said: "On Wednesday last week, keepers noticed that Claudio was very lethargic. He hardly had anything to drink on Friday and simply grew weaker and weaker. He died on Saturday." Münster zookeepers said Claudio's death was almost certainly the result of Gana neglecting and mistreating the infant. But they said they would not be able to confirm the cause until Gana relinquished Claudio's body and allowed a post-mortem examination to be carried out on it.

It emerged yesterday that Gana had a history of rejecting and mistreating her offspring. Last year, she gave birth to her first baby, a female named Mary Zwo. Gana rejected Mary Zwo for six weeks. Staff at the zoo finally intervened and rescued the baby, which was taken to a veterinary hospital with dehydration and exposure. Mary Zwo was never returned to her mother and has lived at a zoo in Stuttgart with four other gorillas ever since.

This time, Münster Zoo rejected the idea of stepping in to save Claudio. "There was no point in intervening again," said Mr Adler. "We cannot keep on taking away children from a mother."

Zoo staff said that at first they had hoped that Gana would treat Claudio better that Mary Zwo. The baby had developed normally until a few weeks ago and had played actively with a nine-month-old gorilla in the enclave.

They said Claudio suddenly became noticeably frail last week. Keepers attempted to revive him with baby food contained in a child's plastic beaker they poked through the bars of his cage.

On Friday, he was reportedly still taking his mother's milk. "After that he went rapidly downhill," said one of his keepers.

In the wild, gorillas have been known to carry around the corpses of their offspring for days after they have died.

Münster Zoo's decision not to intervene to save the Claudio was expected to revive a controversy in Germany over the way that zoos treat animals in captivity. Berlin Zoo's decision more than 18 months ago to intervene to save the life of the now internationally renowned polar bear cub, Knut, after he was rejected by his mother at birth sparked a major debate. Several leading polar bear experts claimed that it was unnatural for the zoo to step in and rescue the bear.

They said human intervention would result in Knut never being able find a mate and it would leave him totally dependent on humans. Similar arguments were raised earlier this year after the birth and rescue of another polar bear cub rejected by it mother at Nuremberg Zoo.

Although Knut has subsequently won the hearts of millions worldwide and even become the subject of a Hollywood film, some zoologists contend that the bear has developed psychopathic tendencies.

As predicted, Berlin Zoo is currently experiencing problems in finding Knut a potential mate.

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