On Saturday, May 28th, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland silverback Gorilla, one of the world’s critically endangered animals. Harambe was transferred to The Cincinnati Zoo from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX in September, 2014 and is a captive born gorilla.
Although the complete story is still sketchy, all news outlets – local, national, and international – are reporting that a 4-year-old boy breached the barrier to the gorilla enclosure, fell down approximately 10-12 feet into the moat that separates the public from the area the animals populate, and was approached by Harambe. After a short time, he dragged the boy to the far end of the moat and, when the security team arrived, they made the decision to shoot and kill the gorilla instead of tranquilizing him, for the safety of the child. The child was then retrieved and taken to Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He was conscious and talking to paramedics, with reported scratches and a bump on the head.
A couple of videos and news stories are worth watching/reading:
As one might imagine, public reaction to this story was immediate and visceral. Reactions range from concern for the well-being of the child to sadness for the loss of Harambe to outright rage toward both the adults responsible for this child and the zoo, for having a penetrable barrier and a solution that was simply not good enough in so many peoples’ eyes.
I had several reactions, all at once, and am still processing the jumble of thoughts and emotions this triggered in me. I think it’s important when something like this happens and we are not there, we are not witness to it, that we are cautious about not only our own reaction to our feelings and how we care for ourselves during these times, but also how we think about and react to others.
A number of news stories on this incident report that, before crossing the barrier and falling into the moat, witnesses heard the child express an interest in going into the water and that the mother had both heard and responded to him by telling him “no.” One story also mentions that the mother accompanying this child had a total of six children with her. There was no mention of another adult chaperone, and no other news agency has reported on the parent or guardians. Many folks have commented both that the mother is to blame for not supervising her son and that one cannot and should not blame the mother, as it is very easy to become separated from a child in public. While I am going to withhold specific blame in this case for the parents until I get more specific details, I do think it sounds like there was a serious lack of supervision that led to the injury of this little boy and the death of this beautiful animal.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s response to the introduction of a human boy into Harambe’s environ is deeply regrettable, but I’m not certain they had another option. Maynard admitted that the young boy was not being harmed while with Harambe, but he believed he was in potential danger.
“You’re talking about an animal that’s over 400 pounds and
extremely strong. So no, the child wasn’t under attack but all
sorts of things could happen in a situation like that. He certainly
was at risk,” Maynard tells WLWT.
Many people did not understand why the Response Team chose a lethal kill over the use of tranquilizers. It took 10 minutes for Security to arrive and it is reported that the child was in the enclosure for 10-15 minutes. We can speculate, in hindsight, what they should have done but, in fact, they had moments to make a decision. Harambe, a 400lb wild animal, fairly new to the zoo and (as can be seen in the video) somewhat agitated by all that was going on, was hands-on with the 4-year-old that had entered his territory. Not under attack, but potentially at risk. Shooting him with a tranquilizer gun would have startled him, probably increasing his agitation, and the effects of the tranquilizing agent would have taken a couple minutes to take effect.
It’s a tragedy, any way you look at it.
There was one foolproof way to have prevented it, though. If Harambe had never been a captive gorilla, on display for thousands of people to walk by and point and shout at, he would never have come in contact with this 4-year-old boy and no one would have had to make the tragic decision to shoot and kill him. That is fact.
And to even suggest, as some have, that Harambe didn’t suffer, yesterday or during his entire life in captivity is a shameful statement.
Zoos are being touted as institutions of conservation and education. And The Cincinnati Zoo has been better than most in both of these efforts. But as a lifelong supporter of this zoo, as someone who was active in youth programs there, volunteered there, attended many behind-the-scenes events there I have, over the last several years, begun to grow into a new understanding of what zoos are to the animals they hold captive. And I’ve come to see the zoo from the perspective of the animal and, equally as important, I think, I’ve begun to rethink our methods of conservation.
Now, when I go to the zoo, I can’t see past the swaying elephants and the pacing cats. The animals that are chewing the bars of their cages and the solitary birds that are kept in darkened, cramped quarters with no room to fly and plastic foliage, pretty and on display for our pleasure. Now, when I go to the zoo, tears fill my eyes when I see tiny terrarium after terrarium filled with snakes and frogs and lizards, destined to live life in a 12×6 in glass cell. Now, when I go to the zoo, I hear people talk about conservation, but I see common birds and reptiles, captive, not to conserve, but to exhibit as museum pieces for profit.
Harambe, like many others, was born a captive to remain a captive until death. Is this conservation?
Metta to all who remain captive.