by Barry Kent Mackay
Senior Program Associate, Born Free U.S.A.
There has been so much written about the shooting of a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla named Harambe at Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, 2016 that it might seem that all views and issues have been amply explored, although too often not necessarily by people who have previously thought much about zoos, animals, or animals in zoos––arguably a significant part of my own life’s work.
Briefing for Mars visitors
In case you’ve just returned from Mars and have been too busy contemplating re-entry to view or read any social media, a four-year old boy who was, according to press reports, fascinated by the water in a shallow moat below a retaining wall bordering the gorilla compound at the Cincinnati Zoo, somehow managed to squeeze through the barrier and fall about five meters!
That would be horrific enough, but is often glossed over because of what happened next.
In the exhibit were three gorillas, two females, and the 17-year-old, 400 pound male western lowland gorilla named Harambe. The females posed no problem and followed keepers’ instructions to leave the exhibit and enter their night quarters. The male, however, descended into the moat. At first the male, judging from initial video that surfaced, seemed concerned about the tiny youngster, gentle, and acted as though he might have wanted to help, not hurt, the child.
The fatal gunshot
But these are incredibly powerful animals, a peaceful herbivore not known to kill people in the wild, yes, but also a species known to kill the babies of rival males. This was an individual animal who, according to one zoo employee, could crush open a coconut with one hand. And the crowd of horrified onlookers understandably but unfortunately were screaming loudly, which appeared, at the last fraction of a second of that first video, to possibly frighten Harambe, who appeared to then forcibly yank the child out of frame, although all so quickly I couldn’t be sure.
The fatal gunshot followed approximately ten minutes of activity that is mostly not on video so far as I know, and certainly not on the video I first saw, as anger at the zoo, and the child’s mother, spread across the world’s computer screens and onto TV and radio newscasts and into print media. It continues as I write, days later––perhaps even reaching a greater crescendo than the tragic killing of Cecil the lion by coldly clueless American trophy hunter Walter Palmer, just thirteen months earlier. (See also Cecil-the-lion killer Walter James Palmer walks.)
The boy was at grave risk
Let me get one thing clear up front. Two days after the first video I saw, which ended before Harambe did anything too dangerous-looking, I viewed another video that showed Harambe pulling the helpless boy at great speed through the water, yes, but water surrounded by gunite, a fake rock material (also used in swimming pools) that is stone-hard.
At the time it could not have been known how many injuries the little boy sustained in the fall––he could have had broken limbs, concussion (as he did), internal bleeding, or some combination of injuries, possibly life-threatening and requiring immediate medical attention. The fall, itself, had been life-threatening. But even if unhurt by the fall, the boy was still at grave risk.
Out of options
And so if the objective was to save the child, and legally that was exactly and beyond any question the obligation of the zoo, the killing of Harambe was the only option. The only caveat is that since none of us was present, none of us can say such a thing with absolute certainly (that is, we don’t know what was happening at the time the shot was fired), but based on what is known, the decision seems inescapably valid.
Shooting carried its own life-threatening risks from the unintended consequences of ricocheting bullets, bullet fragments, gunite splinters and possibly a sudden unexpected placement of the child into line of fire, but assuming that what we’re told is correct––and based on the video, there is no real reason to think otherwise––the shot was not merely legally justified, it was legally essential.
“Hindsight is always lucid & obvious”
In fact, the zoo apparently had a response plan in place that included shooting, and no wonder. What has not been widely reported is that there was, according to reports that have since surfaced, nothing so terribly unusual in all this.
There were plans afoot to replace the entire Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit during the coming year. Had that been done already, or the improved safety barrier now installed at the old gorilla exhibit been put in place sooner, this tragedy would never have happened.
Polar bear escape
Of course hindsight is always lucid and obvious, but there should have been foresight. The Cincinnati-based organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now reported, with back-up documentation, that two years earlier the United States Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service complained about “deteriorating wood boards” in two other exhibits, one housing Przewalski’s horses, the other monkeys, neither probably posing any serious threat to the public. But far more dangerous was the escape, less than three months ago, of two polar bears into “the zookeeper area.” Polar bears, unlike gorillas, horses and colobus monkeys, are predatory and in the wild do attack and kill people and other prey far larger and stronger than the biggest, strongest human, let alone a child.
A similar situation happened in the Dallas Zoo in 1998, when another lowland western gorilla named Hercules got into the keeper’s area. Hercules was not in the public part of the zoo, but nevertheless he managed to bite and seriously injure keeper Jennifer McClurg, dragging her down a corridor.
But Hercules was lucky; when he became distracted by food in the kitchen, zoo staff were able to shoot him with a tranquilizer gun, and then simply avoid him until he fell asleep, definitely not an option with Harambe as animals, hit by a tranquilizer gun, don’t just suddenly go unconscious. Anger or fright at the sensation of having a dart hit him could have driven the gorilla into a resentment-or-fear-fueled frenzy fatal to the child.
However, twelve years ago the world was not so shocked when, also at Dallas Zoo, another male western lowland gorilla, this one weighing about 300 pounds and named Jabari, was shot dead. That may in part be because before the cops opened fire, Jabari had indeed been pursued by zoo staff armed with tranquilizer guns, but they couldn’t get a clear shot. Jabari injured four people, including Rivers Noah, who at the time was a mere three year old toddler. The gorilla bit the child’s head and injured his mom’s hand.
There was pandemonium with zoo visitors being rushed to safety. When the police managed to corner Jabari, he charged them. It might have been a “bluff charge,” but cops are not, nor should be expected to be, gorilla behavior experts, and captive animals do not, at any rate, necessarily act as wild ones do, where a gorilla’s bluff charge does not equal an attack, and so the lethal response is both understandable and justified.
Or is it?
I can go on enumerating the number of times people have been hurt or killed entering animal enclosures at zoos and aquariums or zoo animals have escaped, putting people at risk, sometimes causing human injury or death or being killed to protect people, but in the interest of space, suffice to say it happens with unfortunate frequency.
Often the problem is stupid people doing stupid things, on a dare, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or, sadly, people with serious emotional or mental problems being reckless.
And then there are the children, who, being children, have poorly developed risk assessment, like the then six-year old whose arm had to be amputated after he was mauled by wolves at Toronto Zoo in 1985. He had sneaked in to a restricted area where he could reach into the wolves’ enclosure.
But let me first give this opinion. At the Cincinnati Zoo there were two victims, both doing what could be expected of them. One was the child, who fortunately was not seriously injured––though he did suffer a concussion––as a result of his perfectly normal curiosity, energy, and lack of caution. The second was Harambe, no less innocent, also simply acting as he might well be expected to act, under the circumstances. He paid for that with his life.
That said, I was asked by at least one person, why is a human’s life of greater value than a gorilla’s? The short answer is that it isn’t, if you are a gorilla.
Value of a life
Beyond that, it becomes a matter of values. There is, in the greater scheme of things, no absolute answer except for people who decide there is, conditioned from birth, often as a function of religious instruction, to think so.
Far more humans, millions more, are killed by humans than are killed by any kind of animals, and certainly than are killed by gorillas.
We live in countries that as a matter of routine political policy do things that inevitably lead to unintended deaths of children and other innocent people. Any of us could do more to reduce, if only by one or two, the deaths of refugees, flood victims, the homeless or suicidal or whatever.
But we also protect ourselves with rigid laws against harming other people and spend billions helping each other and donating to charities that seek to save human life, far more than in helping animals. Even so, whenever there is an outcry against this or that animal abuse or death there are commentators who decry putting an animal life above that of a human.
Novelty has a lot to do with how news is covered. It would take volumes to report all the humans killed by other humans in North America in any given year, many of them in sadly ho-hum cases, while gorilla shootings in zoos are thankfully rare. Far less rare are gorilla shootings in the wild, all illegal, all driving the species toward extinction.
In fact, there are very few gorillas, period, and that leads me to a point that, finally, the popular media is, albeit to a very limited degree, starting to grasp.
The gorilla is an endangered species. What is meant by “species” is something most people don’t understand, and I don’t want to get bogged down trying to explain. Suffice for now to say that there are two main “types” of gorilla. Whether or not each is a distinct species is a matter of technical debate that need not concern us and certainly does not occupy the thoughts of gorillas.
The eastern gorilla is further divided into two “subtypes” or, more correctly, subspecies. One of these subspecies is the “mountain” gorilla. The other is the eastern “lowland” or “Grauer’s gorilla.
The western gorilla is also divided into two subspecies, the western “lowland” gorilla, which is what Harambe was, and the Cross River gorilla. Of these four “kinds” or “taxa” (singular “taxon”) of gorilla, the western lowland is the most common, thus the most commonly seen in zoos, although we don’t really know exactly how many there are.
Value to species
It is guessed that there are about 100,000 western lowland gorillas in the wild, which means that any one of them equals one 100,000th of the wild population.
There are some 7,400,000,000 people in the world, so any one of us only equals one 7,400,000,000th of the population of our own species, so you can see how one gorilla is relatively important to the survival of its species, while one human is not. In fact, human population growth continues to rapidly grow. Thus we can, and do, knock off millions of humans each year, through war, crime, negligence, bad decisions and preventable accidents, and still our species thrives and grows.
Animal rights theory
But the gorilla population is, overall, decreasing, deaths outmatching births, on average overall. Thus, each gorilla contributes more to the survival of its species than any given stadium full of people contribute to the survival of humankind.
But in the minds of most, that would only put a gorilla’s life ahead of a human’s if it was more important to save the species than to save a human’s life, and even then, only if the loss of that gorilla meant the loss of that species. That ignores some classic animal rights theory, which I’ll save for another day.
[Editor’s note: Barry Kent Mackay refers here to the argument that the value of each sentient being’s life is of approximately equal value to that being, and that therefore an animal’s rights are violated when that animal’s life is taken.]
Meanwhile, what annoys me, and what I’m grateful to see a small percentage of media and commentators pick up on, is that the zoo community, on the defensive for imprisoning innocent animals, as well as putting them, and us, at some risk, is sort of, kind of, trying to indicate exactly that: that the tragedy of killing Harambe is compounded because he belonged to an endangered species.
The world’s population of all four gorilla taxa combined wouldn’t equal the population size of a small town or city full of humans, but there is nothing zoos are doing by keeping captive gorillas in zoos that will save the species. The zoo community wants you to think that somehow what they are doing is “conservation.” Thus as they defend the action of shooting Harambe, they always remind us of the endangered status of gorillas.
No zoo-bred gorillas in the wild
But no zoo-bred gorillas are put in the wild, nor could they be. The problems wild gorillas face, put simply, are poaching, including for the “bush-meat” trade; habitat loss; and disease. Keeping and breeding gorillas in Cincinnati, or anywhere else, does not stop any of that.
What is more honestly the concern of the zoo community is the captive population of zoo gorillas. It is becoming increasingly untenable for zoos to remove gorillas from the wild, and since gorillas tend to be a huge attraction, zoos want a captive population.
When Born Free USA’s primate sanctuary in Texas was acquired by our predecessor, the Animal Protection Institute, a stop was put to an ongoing experiment whereby captive Japanese snow monkeys, another primate species, were allowed to breed, in captivity but far from their native home, for generation after generation.
What was happening was that they were changing. Scientists could measure the difference as they “diverged” from ancestral stock, or type. They were getting bigger. Their behavior was different, too.
This invariably happens when a population of animals is isolated from the rest of the population. It is called “domestication,” as opposed to “natural” selection. In other words, the zoo community––humans––decide which animals will breed with which, sometimes (rather often, in fact) even if it means using artificial insemination. When breeding endangered species, they try to choose in a way that mimics what would happen in the wild––natural selection––but in fact, unless they can keep pulling animals in from the wild, the animals of each succeeding generation invariably diverge, the selection being consciously human.
In the wild the selective process depends on the conditions faced by those animals, which are extremely different than what are in zoo gorilla habitats. In both cases it is only the surviving animals that pass their genes, thus various traits and characteristics, to the next generation. But what determines survival in gorilla habitats is profoundly different from what determines survival in the jungle habitats of Africa.
Most choices in the process of domestication are imposed in the interest of encouraging a species to change in a way that benefits human interests: short legs in a dog to be used to go into tunnels after badgers, for example, or other adaptations to produce horses who can run exceptionally fast or chickens who can lay many eggs, or canaries who sing long songs, or fish who grow extra large. Zoos try to keep their animals looking “natural,” but they can’t, ultimately, because conditions in zoos are not remotely natural.
“Zoos spend most of their money on themselves”
Yes, there have been some so far successful attempts to breed a very small number of endangered species in captivity and release the offspring to the wild, to breed on their own, thus helping to boost the numbers in the wild and perhaps eventually save the species from extinction. But you don’t need zoos to do that, and indeed, nearly all such effort is done away from the zoo itself, as it is counterproductive let the animals become used to people. But these efforts are difficult to impossible when dealing with highly social, intelligent animals who live, when in their homelands, in incredibly complex environments that can’t be replicated in zoos.
Zoos spend most of their money on themselves. The nearest zoo to me is the largest in Canada, the Toronto Zoo, which spends something like one fifth of one percent of its budget on conservation. Check the signs and you’ll see again and again they reference obtaining grants for their conservation work. You don’t need to be a zoo to qualify for grants!
Zoos are baby-sitters!
But there is something else that has really annoyed me, and that is the alacrity with which the zoo community, and, sadly, so many members of the public, have jumped all over the mother of the child whose fall into the gorilla pit moat ultimately led to Harambe’s untimely death. One zoo official harrumphed that zoos were not baby sitters.
But that is exactly what they are!
Zoos are entertainment parks which design themselves specifically and explicitly to attract families with young children. They are places that people with kids go so that the kids can play and be amused.
Visit any zoo in summer and you see mostly moms and dads and other older relatives or groups of parents strolling casually through the grounds, with children charging off in all directions.
Zoos encourage it
And the zoos encourage it with family-oriented fast food outlets; gift shops crammed with dolls and toys and books and gimmicks all designed to appeal to little boys and girls; pony rides, elephant rides and camel rides abound; splash pads, merry-go-rounds and colorful cartoon characters flourish. These are child magnets and children are invariably featured in their ads and promotional material.
I believe that any parent who takes a child to such a place is justified in thinking something so basic as a barrier that effectively separates a child from a bad fall, let alone close contact with a potentially dangerous animal, is in place.
Both animals & children should be safe in a zoo
It is a wonderful trait of four-year-olds that they are so innocent, have such energy, and are so fearless in their explorations of a world full of risks far beyond their comprehension. It’s not that I wish parents wouldn’t keep children well supervised, but all of us are capable of being distracted for the few seconds it takes for a child to get into mischief. And frankly, it is usually the animals who are bothered by badly supervised kids that are my greater concern, but the simple fact is I want both to find safety in a zoo, and they don’t.
One zoo official complained that in the 38 years the exhibit had been there such a thing had never happened. Good grief…does one await tragedies before preventing them? Humans are generally poor at risk assessment, but as essentially a professional zoo visitor, I’ve seen lots of zoos where such “accidents” are just waiting to happen. If zoos are going to work as hard as they do to attract children, they have an obligation, moral and legal, to make those children safe.
Cruel & illogical species?
That the mother has been called “the most reviled mom” on the internet, even to receiving death threats, speaks to just what an illogical and cruel species we are. Our history is full of violence and unspeakable acts of brutality against each other and against animals, and indeed, against the planet that struggles against us just to provide for us all that we need ourselves, to survive, whatever our species.
But on the other hand we are capable of goodness, of change, and the history of humanity is one of moving in that direction. With all the seething hatred we seem so easily to manifest, in balance we can be decent, caring, even loving.
I try to be an optimist, but it’s an uphill battle. However, when I did 12 interviews with the CBC last week, each asked the same question: what do I hope to see as a result of this tragedy?
What I hope to see, I am seeing
What I hope to see, I am seeing, and that is a continuation in our evaluation of our relationship with animals and the role zoos play. Traditional zoos, their roots in the soil of imperialist domination and Eurocentric hubris, have had their day. Harambe’s death has led to welcome and long overdue discussion and debate. Increasingly the zoo community is on notice. They teach little, and much of that misleading. We live in a modern era with enormously powerful real teaching tools increasingly at our disposal. We can do better.
Just as I need to go to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids, or Australia to see Ayers Rock, so do I have to go to a limited part of Africa to see a gorilla. What is in zoos is a sad abstraction of the magnificent reality, somehow maintaining dignity and beauty in front of the gawking crowds, imprisoned in the exhibit, enslaved for our edification, objectified, maybe feared, maybe admired, maybe even loved, but not understood, not whole, not as he should be.
Zoo apologists, at some primal level, must know this, and instead of defensively fighting back should move ahead. They now have still more incentive to do so.
See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, Part I; Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old and Conclusion: what the life & death of Harambe the gorilla means