How Harambe the gorilla's death challenges morality at zoos

An endangered gorilla was killed by zoo officials at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday after a four-year-old boy snuck into the animal's enclosure, raising larger questions about keeping wild animals in captivity. 

Cincinnati Zoo/Reuters
Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo.

A 17-year-old, 400-pound gorilla named Harambe was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo Saturday after a four-year-old boy climbed into the animal’s enclosure. 

“The Zoo security team’s quick response saved the child’s life,” said Zoo Director Thane Maynard in a press release. “We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically-endangered gorilla. This is a huge loss for the Zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.”

Three gorillas were in the exhibit at the time, but the two females were successfully called away from the boy by park officials. However Harambe remained near the boy, at one time “violently dragging and throwing the child,” reported the Cincinnati Fire Department. Zoo officials say they chose to kill Harambe instead of tranquilize him because “in an agitated situation” tranquilizers may take some time to go into effect. 

Mr. Maynard adds that while the gorilla did not attack the child, it was a dangerous situation and zoo officials feared for the child’s life. But reports of the alleged violence have differed, with some zoo onlookers saying Harambe seemed protective of the young boy, only alarmed by officials and visitors’ frenzied responses. The young boy was taken to a nearby hospital with serious but non-life threatening injuries.

Although this is the first time the Cincinnati  zoo has killed an animal in this manner, a similar incident happened just last week at the Santiago Metropolitan Zoo in Chile. Two lions – one male and one female – were shot by park officials when a man jumped into the big cats’ enclosure at the zoo.

According to a report by the BBC, zoos officials prepare for similar incidents at least twice a year. And while zoo officials never wish to practice their training in a real-life scenario, human life is always the “first priority.” But animal enclosures are made increasingly wide and protective: To reach the gorilla, the young boy had to first climb under a steel railing, and through some bushes and wires before falling 10 to 12 feet into a moat surrounding the gorilla’s home. 

Others say it is not a matter of stronger enclosures or better safety practices: They charge that zoos are unnatural and wild animals should not be kept captive.

“We have to change direction, hit the brakes,” Ed Stewart, co-founder and president of the Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS), tells The Monitor’ Jessica Mendoza in reference to the world’s upkeep of zoos. “We need to change the way we’re doing things.”

Although some captivity proponents argue that zoos are helpful tools to allow people to learn about – and thus care about and protect – wild animals, Mr. Stewart says this reasoning is flawed.

“A young child can tell you more about a dinosaur than he can about an elephant,” Stewart tells The Monitor. “You don’t need an elephant in a cage to learn about elephants.” 

In the 21st century, public sentiment has increasingly moved against zoos and the idea of holding wild animals captive. Within the last year, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it would retire its elephant act by 2018, and SeaWorld has agreed to end captive breeding of killer whales.

But as in the case of Harambe, zoos can also be a useful tool in helping endangered species’ populations to rebound.

However, in less than 24 hours the “Justice for Harambe” Facebook page has garnered over 1,250 likes and advocates have tweeted #JusticeforHarambe on Twitter. And many social media users are calling for the boy’s parents to be held responsible for Harambe’s death. 

But Lt. Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Police Department, says no charges are being pursued against the boy’s parents.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the western lowland gorilla is critically endangered: the final classification before a species is declared extinct in the wild. Researchers believe commercial hunting and the Ebola virus have caused gorilla populations to decrease by more than 80 percent over the last three generations.

“Harambe was [a] good guy,” adds Maynard. “There were hopes to breed him. It will be a loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas.” 

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