Making the American Gorilla: Exploring The Production of Endangered Species and Conservation in America




Torpie-Sweterlitsch, Jennifer R.

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From King Kong to Koko, gorillas hold a unique place in American imaginations and are intimately tied to our perceptions of nature, conservation, and relationships with the environment. Since their first introduction to Western science by American naturalists in 1848, Americans have encountered gorillas in a variety of contexts, including film, comics, news articles, and natural history museums. However, the most visible and visceral encounters occur within zoological institutions, where the North American gorilla population is (re)produced and managed across 50 institutions for public consumption. In these diverse contexts, gorillas are embedded within specific cultural and conservation ideologies, which have changed dramatically over time. In large part, these shifts have been driven by the environmental and conservation movements, first influenced by the work of conservationists like Dian Fossey and led today by a network of gorilla experts working across zoological institutions and their in situ conservation partners. Gorillas, as a captive species and wild animal, emerge from and co-produce this close-knit professional network, made legible to Americans in the virtual and physical encounters with gorillas mediated by these professionals. Using a mixed-methods approach, this dissertation traces the role of American gorilla agency in shifting American perceptions of the species and how endangered species and global conservation networks co-produce species conservation and the American conservation ethic in a time of conservation crisis.



actor-network, conservation, gorilla, mutlispecies, neoliberal conservation, zoo