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Cher Aims To Get Gorilla Released After 30 Years In Thai Zoo

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Rachel Martin with words I think will compel you to listen to this next story - gorilla, rescue, Cher. The music legend is trying to save the animal from a private zoo activists have tried to close for years. Michael Sullivan has the story from Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Bua Noi, Thailand's only gorilla, lives here in the PATA Department Store in Bangkok. OK, not here here but seven floors up on the roof, which has been her home ever since she was brought here from a zoo in Germany more than 30 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBBONS HOWLING)

SULLIVAN: The zoo takes up the entire rooftop with a token attempt to recreate a jungle with a few ferns and small trees. There's porcupines and parrots, lemurs from Madagascar and Bua Noi's noisy primate neighbors, gibbons and orangutans and an unfettered flamboyance of flamingos.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLAMINGOS HONKING)

SULLIVAN: But Bua Noi - the name means little lotus - is the main attraction. Her glass-and-concrete enclosure inexplicably gets almost no direct sunlight in a zoo described by several TripAdvisor reviewers as animal hell. But visitor Ann Tantipimtavat (ph), who's here with her 2-year-old niece, doesn't see it that way.

ANN TANTIPIMTAVAT: (Through interpreter) It's very private, and all of the animals look healthy, even though Bua Noi does seem a little lonely because there is no one there with her.

SULLIVAN: Edwin Wiek, the founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation, an animal rescue group near Bangkok, thinks that's an understatement.

EDWIN WIEK: She doesn't even make eye contact with people anymore. She used to look at you right in the eyes. Nowadays, she just looks through you basically. She doesn't interact anymore. She's just given up.

SULLIVAN: Many have tried and failed to get the zoo closed over the years. But Cher's timing is good. The zoo's license is up for renewal. She's written to the Thai government asking for the primates to be freed and has been shaming the zoo's owner on Twitter as greedy, asking her fans to help stop the torturing of innocent animals. Sompong Thongsrikhem (ph), director of the Office of Wildlife Conservation at the Environment Ministry, thinks that's a stretch.

SOMPONG THONGSRIKHEM: (Through interpreter) From what I've been able to see, it doesn't rise to the level of abuse or torture. But the space is limited, and it's not very appropriate.

SULLIVAN: The zoo's owner, Kanit Sermsirimongkol, insists he's not in it for the money.

KANIT SERMSIRIMONGKOL: (Through interpreter) The zoo is a place to educate and entertain people, for families to be somewhere safe where we can educate a new generation to love animals.

SULLIVAN: He says he's lucky to break even, especially during COVID, and has a counterproposal for Cher.

SERMSIRIMONGKOL: (Through interpreter) If Cher is really worried about Bua Noi being lonely, why doesn't she pay for a male gorilla to come here to be with her?

SULLIVAN: That's not likely, but neither is Kanit giving in to pressure, says Edwin Wiek, the founder of the animal rescue group, especially after Cher's personal attacks on social media.

WIEK: He doesn't want to lose face. He doesn't want to lose control. I think he's had it, to be honest. But he doesn't want to give in to a bunch of foreigners. I mean, if I was him and you called me an evil bastard, I don't want to talk to you.

SULLIVAN: But Wiek thinks the zoo owner would settle for a few hundred thousand dollars to part with Bua Noi if Cher were willing - less than half she reportedly spent rescuing and resettling Kavaan the elephant. Until that happens or the government grants her request, Bua Noi will likely remain on the roof of the clapped out department store, her home for more than 30 years and counting. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME")

CHER: (Singing) If I could turn back time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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