What really happened?
Part I of a three-part series. See also: Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old; 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.
CINCINNATI, Ohio––“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on,” remarked evangelist Charles Haddon Spurgeon on April Fool’s Day 1855.
This was of course long before the invention of social media, and 161 years before a four-year-old boy on May 28, 2016 fell into a moat at the Cincinnati Zoo. The boy’s fall led about 10 minutes later to the shooting death of the zoo’s best-known and most popular animal, the male silverback gorilla Harambe, whose 17th birthday had been marked by public celebration just one day earlier.
Fictions, bizarre half-truths, and ill-informed emotive response to the shooting mythologized the incident even before all of the people involved had left the zoo premises.
Contributing most to the misunderstandings and misdirected reactions to Harambe’s death were edited versions of a cell phone video produced by witness Kim O’Connor, which––if viewed as a continuous whole, as O’Connor herself posted it––should have quelled much of the fury and second-guessing of the Cincinnati Zoo staff’s reluctant decision to kill Harambe, the zoo’s poster animal and most valued and lucrative attraction, before he did further injury to the already injured four-year-old.
Heard a splash
O’Connor’s cell phone video did not capture the first moments of the incident. O’Connor later told WLWT News that she heard the four-year-old who fell wishing that he could get into the water of the moat, then heard a splash. Other witnesses and a Facebook posting by Gregg indicate that she had told her son he could not go into the water, and had begun taking him toward the zoo exit.
The O’Connor video began soon after Harambe responded to the splash by descending into the moat, where he found the boy.
A second witness, Brittany Nicely, told media that she saw the four-year-old climb over a three-foot-high stainless steel barricade that keeps visitors from approaching the moat around the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit, but was unable to grab the boy in time to stop.
“He was right here!”
Said Deidre Lykins in the most detailed account available, posted to Facebook on May 29, 2016, “This was an accident! A terrible accident, but just that! I was taking a pic of the female gorilla, when my eldest son yelled, ‘What is he doing?’ I looked down, and to my surprise, there was a small child who had apparently flopped over the railing, where there was about three feet of ground [densely covered with thorny vegetation] that the child quickly crawled through! I assumed the woman next to me [apparently Nicely] was the mother, getting ready to grab him, until she said, ‘Whose kid is this?’ None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes that before myself or husband could grab him, he went over!
“The crowd got a little frantic,” the Lykins’ account continued, “and the mother was calling for her son, actually, just prior to him going over, but she couldn’t see him crawling through the bushes. She said ‘He was right here! I took a pic and his hand was in my back pocket and then gone!’ As she could find him nowhere, she looked to my husband (who was already [leaning] over the railing talking to the [fallen] child) and asked, ‘Sir, is he wearing green shorts?’ My husband reluctantly had to tell her yes.”
Zoo tried to keep gorillas away
Both the mother, Michelle Gregg, 32, and Lykins’ husband David were restrained from trying to follow the child into the moat. Lykins herself joined other witnesses in making a frantic series of calls to 911 and the zoo itself, while Gregg tried to calm the child and others tried to alert zoo personnel directly.
From the child escaping from Gregg to the fall into the moat took less time than most readers will expend to read Lykins’ account.
Zoo personnel immediately tried to recall the three gorillas in the exhibit to their indoor quarters. The two females responded, but Harambe, already intent on reaching the child, did not.
The O’Connor video begins with Harambe standing over the child, who had suffered a concussion, in what many viewers misinterpreted to be a protective rather than possessive stance.
Harambe went on to swing the child twice by one leg through the moat, in the same manner that the Los Angeles Zoo male chimpanzee Ripley on June 26, 2012 swung the three-day-old child of the subordinate female chimp Gracie, battering the child to death against rocks and the ground in a 10-minute assault that zoo staff were unable to interrupt even with hoses.
Eventually Harambe dragged the child up the moat, away from O’Connor. Harambe was shot after the O’Connor video ended, after zoo staff failed, they said, in attempts to talk him into release the child.
Critical to realize, in accurately assessing the event, is that the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit, opened in 1978, is managed in a strictly “hands off” mode.
The staff do not have direct contact with the gorillas. The gorillas have not been trained to do much more than come in and go out in response to commands.
They have not been taught to trade injured children for watermelon, for example, as primatologist Ian Redmond suggested might have been done.
Redmond, who has spent most of his life working among the gorilla families initially acclimated to human presence by Gorillas In The Mist author Dian Fossey, described and recommended procedures which are taught and practiced where wild gorillas have been gradually habituated to being observed in open environments. Wild gorillas can approach humans, and can take human belongings, or even grab humans themselves.
Last year for exhibit
The Cincinnati Zoo gorillas, however, were supposed to have been always at a safe distance from humans––and for the first 37 years the gorilla exhibit existed, as the first barless outdoor gorilla habitat at any zoo in the world, the precautions were adequate. Only in the 38th and last year that the current Cincinnati Zoo habitat is to be used did the safeguards around it fail.
A $12 million indoor gorilla pavilion more like wild gorilla habitat, where gorillas can be viewed all year long, not just in spring through fall, is scheduled to open by June 2017.
See also: Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old; 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.