Infanticide is among leading causes of gorilla deaths in the wild
Part II of a four-part series. See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla; Conclusion: what the life & death of Harambe the gorilla means; And the lesson from Harambe’s death is? Well, it’s not to blame mom.
Much of the outrage over the shooting of the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe on May 28, 2016 involved social media posters’ frequently garbled and out-of-context recollections of similar incidents in which a five-year-old boy fell into a gorilla exhibit at the Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey, Channel Islands, United Kingdom, on August 31, 1986, and a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla den at the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, on March 17, 1988.
Jambo & Binti Jua
In the Durrell Wildlife Park case, a male gorilla named Jambo stood over the fallen child and stroked his back until he began to cry. Jambo and several other gorillas then retreated. Jambo had parenting experience, but had not been formally trained in child care.
In the Brookfield Zoo case, an 8-year-old female gorilla named Binti Jua who had been trained in child care, and was carrying her own baby on her back, picked up the unconscious fallen boy and remained with him until her keepers opened a door to approach. Binti Jua then left the boy and retreated.
Behavior opposite to the wild
Harambe demonstrated no such benevolent intentions. Neither could he have been expected to. What was remarkable about the Durrell Wildlife Park and Brookfield Zoo incidents was that on those two occasions captive-raised gorillas demonstrated behavior quite opposite to their often murderous behavior toward their own species in the wild.
Commented former Knoxville Zoo gorilla keeper Amanda O’Donoughue for Slate, “Gorillas are considered ‘gentle giants,’ at least when compared with their more aggressive cousins, the chimpanzees, but a 400+ pound male in his prime is as strong as roughly 10 adult humans.
Class 1 mammal
“Gorillas are considered a Class 1 mammal, the most dangerous class, grouped in with other apes, tigers, lions, bears, etc. While working in an American Zoo Association-accredited zoo with apes,” O’Donoughue explained, “keepers do not work in contact with them, meaning they do not go in with these animals. There is always a welded mesh barrier between the animal and the humans.
“In more recent decades,” O’Donoughue acknowledged, “zoos have begun to redesign enclosures, removing all obvious caging and attempting to create a seamless view of the animals,” so that visitors may “enjoy watching animals in a more natural-looking habitat. This is great until little children begin falling into exhibits.
“The stuff of nightmares”
“I have watched this video over again,” O’Donoughue said, “and with the silverback’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares. I keep hearing that the gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true. Harambe reaches for the boys hands and arms, but only to position the child better for his own displaying purposes. Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first,” if only “due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent.
“Why didn’t they use treats?” O’Donoughue added. “What better treat for a captive animal than a real live kid!
“They didn’t use tranquilizers for a few reasons,” O’Donoughue finished. “Harambe would have taken too long to become immobilized, and could have really injured the child” while a tranquilizer dose took effect.
Also, “Harambe would have have drowned in the moat if immobilized in the water, and possibly fallen on the boy, trapping him and drowning him as well.”
Naive faith in tranquilizer darts
If response to the Harambe case demonstrated any single lesson with particular clarity, it was that the public has developed an astonishingly naïve faith in the efficacy of tranquilizer darts, probably the most oversold technology in the entire field of animal care and control.
“It is important to note that with the child still in the exhibit, tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option,” the Cincinnati Zoo said in a statement. “Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger. On top of that, the impact from the dart could agitate the animal and cause the situation to get much worse.”
Agreed former Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna, in a statement to WNBS-10 TV, “It takes 5 to 10 minutes for a gorilla to lie down and go to sleep, so what’s that male going to do if all the sudden, ‘pow,’ he feels this thing hit him? He’s going to go back there, ‘what is this thing?,’ pull it out, and he’s got a child in his hand … We’re going to have a disaster. Within one split second. You wouldn’t even want to witness it.”
But neither the Cincinnati Zoo statement nor Hanna adequately explained that shooting an animal successfully with a tranquilizer gun is akin to shooting an animal with a bow-and-arrow. A skilled archer can drop a deer with the first arrow about 50% of the time, shooting from about 50 feet away. This is typically done from ambush.
The comparable figure for a rifle shot is a 95% drop rate, shooting from 100 yards (six times as far away).
Wilhelm Tell wasn’t there
Darting Harambe successfully while he was inside the moat would have required a feat of marksmanship comparable to the renowned Swiss archer Wilhelm Tell shooting an apple off of his son Robert’s head, to free them both from a tyrant’s grasp, on November 18, 1307.
Even had Wilhelm Tell or his peer been at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 27, 2016, a successfully delivered tranquilizer dose could take effect no more rapidly than the tranquilizer could move through Harambe’s bloodstream.
That left considerable time for mayhem to ensue.
In April 2003, for example, after perfectly darting an escaped African lion, Wild Animal Orphanage sanctuary founder Carol Azvestas was severely and permanently injured when the lion ran right over her. She fell on a mesquite branch, which completely pierced her body. The lion made no attempt to maul her, but as he obviously still had enough strength and energy to kill someone else, the police on the scene shot him.
That incident led indirectly to the 2010 collapse and dissolution of Wild Animal Orphanage, which with International Fund for Animal Welfare sponsorship had for 17 years been among the best-regarded exotic animal sanctuaries in the world.
Even less widely understood, recognized, and explained to the public was that while gorillas are vegetarians, they are not pacifists, and not particularly gentle in the wild toward even their own species.
Explains a recent paper by seven primatologists, Impact of Male Infanticide on the Social Structure of Mountain Gorillas , “infanticide victims represented up to 5.5% of the offspring born during the study, and they accounted for up to 21% of infant mortality.”
“Infants deprived of protection by an adult male are almost certain to be killed,” elaborates the University of Wisconsin fact sheet on gorilla behavior, citing “high rates of infanticide documented among mountain gorillas at Karisoke.”
Seen among all three gorilla subspecies
Observed earlier among mountain gorillas, infanticide has more recently been observed and documented among eastern and western lowland gorillas.
Harambe was a western lowland gorilla, born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo in 2014.
Much was also made by social media commenters on the Harambe shooting of how British zoo entrepreneur Damian Aspinall was raised in frequent contact with captive gorillas by his father, professional gambler-turned-zookeeper John Aspinall (1926-2000), and how Damien Aspinall allowed his own daughter Tansy, now 25, to be often in contact with hand-reared captive gorillas from the age of six months.
The Aspinall family
Not mentioned, however, was that the John Aspinall risk-taking style of zoo management contributed to the deaths on the job of five keepers between 1980 and 2000, while Damien Aspinall in 2014 released six captive-raised gorillas in Gabon, Africa, five of whom were killed within weeks by wild gorillas while another went missing.
The dead gorillas had not been poached, as their body parts had not been taken, explained Daily Mail senior foreign writer David Jones, and “hadn’t been attacked by a leopard––perhaps the only predator capable of killing a fully-grown gorilla––for there were no bite wounds. From the extensive trauma to their skulls and torsos,” Jones wrote, “it seemed they had been brutally battered to death or swung by the limbs with enormous force against the trunk of a tree––the hallmarks of a ferocious attack by another gorilla.”
See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla; Conclusion: what the life & death of Harambe the gorilla means; And the lesson from Harambe’s death is? Well, it’s not to blame mom.