The Gorilla in the Zoo

By now, probably everyone has heard about the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo, recently euthanized after a small boy (the many news articles I read variously cited his age as either 3 or 4 years old) deliberately entered his enclosure. The child told his mother that he was going to go into the gorilla’s habitat; the mother said no; the next thing anyone knew, the child was next to the gorilla. Harambe soon began dragging the boy around, causing a concussion in what some say was protective behavior and others say was aggressive, but was certainly dangerous for the child whatever the gorilla’s motivation.

Amid the crowd’s screams, zoo staff tried calling the gorillas out of the outside part of their enclosure and away from the child. Two female gorillas obeyed the call, but Harambe did not. Zoo staff then made the decision to euthanize the gorilla, later explaining that a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and would have agitated the gorilla in the meantime, thus putting the preschool-aged boy in more danger.

Online, everyone had an opinion or even an often dubious degree of expertise. (Yes, I know, here I am writing a blog post.) Some people not only judged the parents but wanted them held criminally responsible, which unleashed a round of other people speaking out against judging parents for what they believe could have happened to anyone in a split second of looking away. Some of the comments I have read about the parents were blatantly racist, and the racial aspect of reactions to the story has been discussed in still other articles such as this one. For their part, the parents of the boy are urging their supporters to make donations to the Cincinnati Zoo in Harambe’s memory rather than donating to the family.

The zoo was widely blamed as well, with people questioning the quality of the barriers surrounding the enclosure, which reportedly meet Association of Zoo and Aquarium standards. Meanwhile, the debates about the value of one human life versus one of some 175,765 gorilla lives left in the world emerged in many comments sections.

Jane Goodall, along with the man who came up with the name for Harambe, the man who raised Harambe as a young gorilla, and a former zookeeper all offered their angles on the story. The incident was used as the premise of articles questioning why zoos exist at all.       Writers with some degree of primate knowledge have taken different stances on whether Harambe was trying to hurt the boy or protect him.

Harambe’s death was lamented in part because of the loss of an individual and of his genes to his endangered species, but as it turns out, his sperm has been preserved and can still be used to help propagate new gorillas.  In another article, we learned of the deaths of Harambe’s gorilla family members in another zoo tragedy (a 2002 chlorine gas leak at Texas’s Gladys Porter Zoo).

Having read dozens of articles on the subject, and too many comments for anyone’s good, I can only conclude that what happened was no one’s fault – a rarely occurring but tragic event in which a decision had to be made instantaneously to preserve human life. I am not wondering what the zoo staff or the mother could have done differently in that terrifying moment. But I am wondering if anything could be done differently, at a societal or field-wide level, to decrease the already low chances of such an outcome.

Newborn babies are swaddled in blankets and dressed in onesies covered with adorable, pastel-colored, smiling, anthropomorphized animals. Certainly I have bought these kinds of gift items myself, along with cute-animal-themed giftwrap, for friends who are having babies. Young children learn about letters and numbers, kindness and taking turns, from books and cartoons about wild animals that look like stuffed toys. At the same time, children also learn that real animals are often large and very often dangerous to human beings, and there are reasons that you can’t pet the lions or even (with some exceptions in the form of exhibits specifically designated as petting zoos) the herbivorous megafauna when you visit the zoo.

If children being wheeled through the zoo entrance in teddy bear strollers are made aware of the dangers that the animals pose to people, how aware are people, in turn, of the danger that people pose to animals? I recently finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which describes the havoc humans are wreaking on ecosystems through phenomena such as habitat destruction, introduction of invasive species, ocean acidification, and climate change. Do zoo visitors understand that zoos exist not just for a fun afternoon of cotton candy and looking at the animals, but also to try to build arks and breed and preserve species that are at risk of extinction due to human activities? Certainly, a job that zoos have is to bring people in the door and educate them about this reality.

When I led birthday parties at the National Zoo, some for children as young as the boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, my fellow Birthday Safari Guides (yes, that was my job title) and I were required to set some ground rules before heading out on our tours. We told the children that the animals have their own diets and it would not be healthy for them to eat human food, so the juice boxes and crackers would stay in the party room. The habitats are the animals’ homes, and we would therefore not tap on their glass, just as it would be rude for someone to come and bang on our own windows at home. When we visited the great apes, we told the children to show their friendliness and non-aggression by turning their backs, closing their mouths (that is, no bared teeth), and looking over their shoulders at the animals. The hope is that we were not only preventing an immediate catastrophe when we set these rules, but also that we were instilling a sort of respect for the animals and their needs.

Worldwide, the Cincinnati Zoo incident was one of a few, in a short period of time, in which humans entered zoo animal enclosures with tragic results. The motivations/explanations for some recent forays into zoo animal habitats include suicidality, drunkenness, and the desire to take selfies with a walrus.

Still, what happened to Harambe is not part of some little-boys-falling-into-gorilla-enclosures epidemic. Arguably, it is part of a humans-encroaching-on-animal-populations epidemic. What if there were better fences, better education, and better tranquilizer darts? (If there is demand for weapons that can instantaneously kill, why doesn’t the human race have the motivation to develop something that can instantaneously tranquilize? I am no expert so perhaps this idea is a scientific impossibility, but if not, I can only imagine how transformative such an invention would be.) Would there then be better outcomes for animals like Harambe?


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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