Why Was the Gorilla Harambe Killed at the Cincinnati Zoo?

Shooting Harambe must be carefully scrutinized.

Posted May 30, 2016

Grief and outrage

Many people worldwide already know about the shooting of a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo to save the life of a 4-year-old child who fell into the gorilla's cage. The boy apparently told his mother he wanted to meet Harambe and crawled under a rail and over the wall of the moat. As usual, my inbox was ringing constantly with different reports. Indeed, the title of Peter Holley's essay in the Washington Post is called "‘Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder: Grief over gorilla’s death turns to outrage." 

What can be done to avoid such unnecessary killings?

Opinions vary widely about whether or not the boy's parents are to blame and should be charged for negligence, and whether Harambe should have been killed. As I watched footage of the event I was reminded of an incident at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo in which a female western lowland gorilla named Binta Jua rescued a 3-year-old boy who fell into her enclosure.

We can also ask if the zoo is to blame. Why was the boy able to get under the rail, had zoo workers practiced the sorts of rescues brought on by these events, why wasn't Harambe tranquilized? Would a tranquilizer have been too slow-acting?

Moving forward, caretakers, who are responsible for the day-to-day well-being of the zoo's residents and who form personal relationships with them, must be involved in preparing for emergency situations such as this. It's these people "on the ground" who know the animals the best and who regularly communicate with them. They also could well be the people who could communicate the animal out of danger so it could be a win-win for all involved. Harambe, like all other gorillas and numerous other zoo-ed animals, are highly intelligent and emotional beings who depend on us to respect and value their cognitive capacities that could well be put to use in potentially dangerous situations. Clearly, knowing about the behavior of each animal, as an individual with a unique personality, is essential for the well-being of every captive being. 

We can't undo Harambe's death but we can, and must, ask these sorts of questions. We also must be sure that all zoo personnel are prepared for unexpected emergencies and are adequately trained to respond where lives are on the line, because killing Harambe is a tragedy. 

Analyzing Harambe's behavior after he met the child

I know how serious this situation is so let me be clear that this is a horrible incident and I know that people have to make split decisions. But I still am not convinced that Harambe could not have been tranquilized and that regular rescue drills centering on this sort of event could have resulted in Harambe still being alive and the little boy being returned to safety. 

I don't know much more about the behavior of gorillas than what I read in texts and research papers, so I asked my friend Jennifer Miller some questions, as she has worked with these beings. Jennifer wrote in an email, "Harambe's movements and positions during the encounter presented nothing more than curiosity and protection for an unfamiliar child inside his environment. What I learned from studying captive Western Lowland gorillas at the Cleveland Zoo was that they are deep contemplators. They are observers more than reactive aggressors. They move their eyes, lips, and heads slowly to communicate through subtle movements. They are rarely vocal and rarely dramatically expressive. Even when threatened by other gorillas, an individual will choose to avoid confrontation more often than engage in harmful behaviors. In avoidance, gorillas often run past other individuals beating their chest, stand still on all four limbs biting their lips or they will hit a wall, tree, anything close and then run off. The only protection that Harambe had that day was the zoo enclosure he was locked inside. That protection was violated by the human public, at which point Harambe became unprotected and was more at risk than the child. He did not stand a chance at human forgiveness as soon as the child entered his enclosure. And the proof lays in the bullet that shot him dead."

Ms. Miller goes on, "Harambe's hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection. Harambe did not view this most unexpected encounter through a lens of fear. Not only was Harambe examining the child in front of him but he was also attentive to the other changes in his environment—the movement of the crowd, the communication between mother and child, the positioning of strangers in areas of his exhibit where they are not normally." 

Why the extra media hype about killing an animal but "business as usual" for human shootouts?

Ms. Miller also noted the media reports about Harambe dragging the child through the water. This type of behavior is common. Adult gorillas commonly do this to one another and to their offspring, in which case the infant gorilla typically climbs up the adult to avoid the ground. A human child would not know to do this."

I also am interested in how media covered this event. For example, on some national news programs the evening of Sunday May 29, the story of Harambe was immediately followed by a report of a shootout in Houston, Texas, in which two people were killed and six injured. The tone of the voice of the reporters was apparent. The reporter was wired and breathless as she recounted the zoo incident, noting that Harambe simply had to be killed to save the boy. When the next reporter told the story of the horrific Houston shootout, her voice was calm as in, Oh well, here we go again, another mass killing, business as usual.  

Zoo-ed animals and their loss of freedom: Why was Harambe in a zoo in the first place?

Another point many people make is that animals like Harambe should not be kept in zoos in the first place. I totally agree, but this discussion at this point deflects attention from the event at the Cincinnati Zoo that could have and should have been avoided. In the best of all possible worlds Harambe would not have lived as a caged animal and the little boy would not have entered Harambe's home. The case of all zoo-ed animals must be openly discussed because their lives are so horrifically compromised and numerous freedoms lost as they are forced to live in small cages for human entertainment (please see, for example, "What Zoos Need to Do for Zoo’d Animals," "Is Going to a Zoo Like Shopping for a Car? Musical Semen," and "What Do Zoos Teach about Biodiversity and Does It Matter?"). 

In all, Harambe's freedoms were taken from him the moment he was born into captivity and his protection taken from him when his space was violated by human activities. While it's most likely that Harambe and other animals kept in cages in zoos would prefer to be free, it's also likely that he viewed his cage as his home and felt safe in familiar environs.

Let's remember in head and heart that Harambe was killed for being forced to live in a cage for the benefit of others, not his own. 

Let's be sure Harambe did not die in vain

Harambe is gone forever, but this incident can and must be used to make certain that events like this never happen again. As I mentioned above, there is global concern about Harambe's death and people who never before have been involved in "animal issues" have weighed in on what happened to him. We can only hope that Harambe, like Cecil the lion who was trophy murdered by a rich dentist from the U.S. and Marius, a young giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo because he was deemed disposable because his genes were no longer useful, will remain in people's hearts and this will lead to a rapid termination of killing animals when it is utterly unnecessary and wrong. All sorts of media can help this movement along and foster peaceful coexistence between humans and non-humans. 

Harambe and Binta Jua revisited

In the end, Harambe's own sense of security was violated, as was Binta Jua's. However, Binta Jua survived and was hailed worldwide as a heroine, whereas Harambe was killed and his death is being criticized and carefully scrutinized globally. 

Note: Carol Gigliotti's comment captures much of what others and I are writing about: The underlying issue is the way we treat animals in general, as objects for our
use, and I felt that blaming the mother of the child, for this admittedly tragic instance, obscured and muddled that underlying issue. Breeding an animal to live out his life in a zoo, and then wondering why untoward things happen when people, in this unfortunate case, a small boy, intrude on the only home they know is the actual problem in this and many other situations involving animals.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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