Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 1, 2016

Gorillas in captivity

Filed under: animal rights — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

I met Hugo the gorilla in Houston back in 1974

Back in 1974, when I was living in Montrose, a Houston neighborhood that was a vaguely bohemian mixture of gay bars and strip joints and that was also home to the SWP headquarters, a comrade named Gene Lantz invited me to go see the famous gorilla named Hugo who lived in a Montrose house. Gene was one of the few local Texans we had recruited that sided with the pro-Barnes majority I was sent down to reinforce. Most of the rest were aligned with the minority that backed the Ernest Mandel faction based in Europe and Latin America.

Since I was fascinated by the great apes at the time (and still am), I decided to take him up on his invitation. We arrived in the living room of a man named Charles B. Greer Jr. who was one of Montrose’s “characters”. He had built a cage for Hugo abutting his living room, in which the animal was sitting quietly near the rear. With a mischievous smile on his face, Greer invited me to go up to the bars and take a look in at Hugo. As soon as he saw me, he stood upright and charged directly toward me like a football defensive lineman coming after a quarterback. When he rammed into the reinforced bars of his cage, it sounded like a bomb going off. This made Greer laugh out loud. It was obvious why he enjoyed keeping a caged gorilla next to his living room—it was a good practical joke to play on visitors. Hugo’s needs hardly entered the picture.

As I expected, I discovered an article about Hugo after Googling “Montrose Houston gorilla pet”. It appeared originally in the September 23rd 2014 Houston Chronicle, a rancid newspaper that befitted a rancid city like Houston. Titled “The amazing, baffling and heartbreaking journey of Hugo the gorilla”, it finally explains how Greer ended up with a gorilla living next to his living room.

When he was just a tiny babe, he [Hugo] was written up in all the major newspapers, appeared on TV and became a fundraiser for various charities in Houston.

But for practically all of his life, he called the Montrose area home, living in a 10-by-20-foot cage that adjoined a house off Mandell Street, just north of where the Southwest Freeway is today.

His name was Hugo, a gorilla born in the wilds of French Equatorial Africa, torn from the jungle when he was mere months old and brought to Houston, where he was the center of a tug-of-war with city officials.

In May 1951, Charles B. Greer Jr. and his wife, Annie, set off from the U.S. for Africa in an adventure-filled hunting trip. It was a lifelong ambition for Charles to hunt there; he already had extensive experience hunting in Canada and Mexico.

The Greers were also looking to bring back some gorillas, living and dead, for the Houston Zoo and other specimens for the Houston Museum of Natural History.

The little gorilla was a celebrity before he even arrived here. The Houston Chronicle ran a couple of articles on him while the Greers journeyed back from Africa. The paper reported their arrival in New Orleans — and their difficulty in finding a room in the Crescent City (“We tried all the big hotels and got shudders, gasps and firm turndowns instead of rooms,” Charles Greer said at the time.).

Eventually Greer and the Houston zoo could not see eye to eye on Hugo’s living conditions at the zoo, so he ended up permanently in a cage adjoining Greer’s living room. Greer told the Chronicle: “They didn’t maintain the proper temperatures. I’ve seen it 10 degrees below the minimum of 78 required for the primate house. And there were other faults, such as letting the roaches take over and letting zoo guards toss food to the apes.” Maybe Greer should have left him in Africa to begin with. And maybe he didn’t need to go on an “adventure-filled hunting trip”. Where did people like him, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway ever get the idea that this was supposed to demonstrate their manhood?

It is entirely possible that Lantz had gotten the idea to take me over to see Hugo because I had postcards of great apes all over the walls of my Montrose apartment. After seeing “Morgan” a few years later, I had begun identifying with the eponymous character who was fixated on Trotsky and gorillas. Morgan had a mental breakdown at the end of the film (the full title was “Morgan: a suitable case for treatment”) and to some extent I was feeling so alienated by life in the SWP that the identification with Morgan came easy.

But there was more to it than that. I had read fairly extensively about primates, including Jane Goodall on the chimps and George Schaller and Diane Fossey on the gorillas. Fossey had become a passionate defender of gorilla habitats in Africa so much so that it got her killed. She was violently opposed to people like Greer snatching animals from the natural surroundings and bringing them to zoos so that we can gawk at them.

When Fossey started off as a naturalist, her parents refused to support her. So she had to take jobs working as a department store clerk or a factory machinist to keep her going. Once she got established in Africa, she focused on keeping poachers out of the gorilla’s habitat who sought to sell infant animals to zoos. Wikipedia reports:

On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers’ traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park’s elephants for ivory and killed more than a dozen gorillas.

Fossey helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served or are serving long prison sentences.[25]

In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey’s objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in “prison” (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.

In addition to poaching, the biggest threat to gorillas is the encroachment on their habitats from both big capitalist logging and mining interests as well as subsistence farmers driven to the deep forest because most of the available land is being used to produce coffee for Whole Foods, et al.

All this brings me to the incident at the Cincinnati zoo where an endangered gorilla was shot in order to protect a toddler who had fallen into his enclosure. I am not going to weigh in on the debates that are raging on the Internet, including whether the African-American mother was negligent.

My main interest here is to assert the need for the abolition of every last zoo, aquarium, and circus that shanghais animals for our entertainment. I also include idiotic lion taming acts like Siegfried and Roy’s. There is an urgent need to protect the environments of great apes not only for their benefit but for ours. Take the orangutan, for example. Its natural habitat is in Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. Deforestation on behalf of palm oil plantations and oil exploration contributes to global warming just as it does in Brazil for ranching and mining. We have a vested interest in such forests remaining pristine and the animals left in peace.

Under socialism there should be a crash project to rebuild the natural habitats of all great animals that have fallen victim to capitalist progress such as the gorilla, the bison, the lion and the tiger. There might not be any zoos in the future but naturalists will go into these habitats and place cameras that can record the daily activities of the animals as the feed and procreate. The video will be broadcast on cable television and the Internet worldwide on a 24/7 basis so that you can watch a gorilla beating his chest from the safety of your living room. Trust me. That will be a lot more entertaining than watching one sitting morbidly behind bars in a cage or even in a supposedly naturalistic “enclosure” like the one at the Cincinnati zoo.



  1. I’m sorry but this is totally outside of the perspective of Marxism. Animals have no intrinsic or abstract value. Their only value is the value they have to humans.

    Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

    By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

    Comment by Arthur Lange — June 2, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

  2. I have to assume that “Arthur Lange” is with Workers Spatula since this is the best satire I have read in a long time–much better than the in-group leftist-trainspotting nonsense that usually appears there.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 2, 2016 @ 5:11 pm

  3. The only farcical content here is the word “Marxist” in the site’s heading. Engels was a fox hunter. You’re a NY liberal pinko.

    Comment by Arthur Lange — June 2, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

  4. “Arthur”, even if your humor was inadvertent, I strongly encourage you to write satire since I doubt that Workers Spatula could come up with anything more clever. The bit about a mink’s pelt being made into a fur coat representing “something higher” was brilliant. If I was asked to write a satire on the sort of Marxism that Frank Furedii made infamous, I’d simply copy and paste what your wrote. In fact, his cult wrote dozens of articles in praise of fox hunting.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 2, 2016 @ 10:26 pm

  5. Workers hunt. It’s one of the most popular pastimes in the US for workers. We also raise animals, wear animals and see animals in real life every day.

    Cosmopolitan middle class New Yorkers are the only ones astounded by animals because they’re totally isolated from the natural environment (the main reason they are the most likely abstract “protect everything” environmentalists). They’re also so isolated from the workers of their own country that they look to people like Hollywood directors and dictators in Latin America for social change.

    Comment by Arthur Lange — June 3, 2016 @ 12:49 am

  6. Do you have a gorilla at home? Do you read him Engels?

    Comment by louisproyect — June 3, 2016 @ 1:47 am

  7. “Workers hunt. It’s one of the most popular pastimes in the US for workers. We also raise animals, wear animals and see animals in real life every day.”

    What does that even mean? Capitalists also hunt. Middle class people also hunt. And some people even wear mink fur coats to display their wealth. Does that ‘elevate’ the mink? No. All that means is that the capitalist person with too much money had the means to buy a fur coat, which was made by killing enough minks to skin them and make a coat.

    I have worked in many jobs in this country, east, west, north and south. I’ve been a printer, painted houses, worked in lumber yards dealing with contractors, carpenters, painters, plumbers; I’ve worked in countless kitchens, worked in bookstores and newspapers stands. In all my lifetime of working with all kinds of people in different regions of the U.S., not once have I come across a fellow-worker who had time to go hunting. We were busy making a living. Not to mention lacking the funds for the cost of all the hunting equipment, and all the related costs.

    All animals consume each other. That’s a truism. All you’re saying is that humans are animals, so we consume other animals. It’s neither particularly working class, nor anything else sociological. It’s to do with survival. I can understand working class people having to hunt to eat. But to make hunting out to be something uniquely indicative of class identity is beyond absurd.

    Then to make a huge jump to claim that by consuming other animals we are ‘elevating’ them smacks of religious thought which believes that humans are God’s supreme creation and whatever we touch elevates them closer to godliness.

    To suppose that humans are the supreme animal species on the planet is a noxious idea. We are the most messed up species on the planet, so much so that (as the Persian saying goes) we don’t even know how much we don’t know. Meaning, we don’t realize how messed up we are.

    Capitalists have fucked up notions about domination of nature to ‘elevate’ it. So, is Arthur a capitalist? Or just a troll?

    Comment by Reza — June 3, 2016 @ 2:25 am

  8. Hey Reza, maybe they spotted you as a plant and refused to bring you into their real lives. Maybe they thought you were on a colonizing mission from the RCP or the SWP. Meanwhile in real life:

    “The number of sportspersons rose from 33.9 million in 2006 to 37.4 million in 2011. The data show that 33.1 million people fished, 13.7 million hunted”

    Most male head of household blue collar workers outside of New England hunt. It’s one of the main reasons we’re all armed. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a gun and use it. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t. Hunting is a lot cheaper than buying beef. A few deer will fill the freezer for many months.

    The middle class left has no connection to us at all. You might as well live on another planet.

    Comment by Arthur Lange — June 3, 2016 @ 2:34 am

  9. There isn’t a worker in America who will get behind the call to “abolish all zoos.” You’d be better off pushing the Sparticist line about legalizing pedophilia. You might at least win a single weirdo over to that.

    Comment by Arthur Lange — June 3, 2016 @ 2:35 am

  10. It turns out that “Arthur Lange” is the idiot Kaylee that I banned last week for sock puppetry. He snuck through because his ip address was slightly different than the one I had put in my kill file. I am now adding the new one. What a pathetic character. He seems to be interested in debating ideas but eliminates that possibility by playing these kinds of asinine games. I don’t mind having flame wars with trolls. I only ask that they pay me the courtesy of using a single fake name on a consistent basis.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 3, 2016 @ 2:36 am

  11. Hey Arthur,

    As you say, 13.7 million Americans hunt. So, given a population of about 320 million in the U.S., that makes it about 4% of the population.

    Hardly the most popular sports activity. Basketball beats your kind by a few light years in popularity. Go Warriors!

    Comment by Reza — June 3, 2016 @ 2:49 am

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