Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

What We Should Learn From the Shooting Death of Harambe

Gorillas are smart, so let's use their intelligence to prevent future tragedies

Posted May 31, 2016

By now, most people are probably aware of the shooting death of a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. A three year old loudly announced to his mother that he was going to join "the gorilla in the water", and did just that when his mother was temporarily distracted. He crawled through a substantial barrier and dropped down a 15-foot wall into the gorilla's enclosure, landing in a foot of water. Two females gorillas responded to the zoo attendant's call to return to their indoor enclosure, but the third, a 17 year old, 400 lb male, named Harambe, didn't. Instead, he decided to investigate this strange event that had just occurred in his territory.

According to witnesses and a videotape made of the event, Harambe appeared to behave protectively toward the boy. The boy landed in a corner, and Harambe hovered over him, looking up at the screaming crowd above him. He apparently decided to move the boy to a safer place. He did this as a gorilla would, dragging the child with him through the water by an ankle and up a ladder to a more secure place. He then righted the boy and held his hand gently while looking around for somewhere else to take him. He decided to drag him again through the water to a more secluded part of the enclosure. You can see a video of Harambe's encounter taken by a bystander and uploaded to YouTube here.

First responders interpreted the gorilla's actions differently. According to zoo officials, the responders claimed the gorilla was behaving roughly and threateningly toward the child, tossing him about as though he were a toy. Fearing for the child's life, no rescue was attempted. Instead, a decision was made to shoot Harambe as the boy sat between his legs. Harambe's dead body fell away from the child rather than on him, which would have certainly crushed him.

The shooting death of Harambe immediately sparked controversy, which neatly divided into three camps. There are those who insist that a human's life is more important than an ape's, so the zoo was correct in shooting rather than attempting a rescue. These folks justify their view either by interpreting the ape's actions as menacing and threatening, or by insisting that even if the ape intended no harm, the potential for great harm existed. Others insist that it was wrong to kill an animal that had shown no sign of trying to harm the child but instead was trying to protect him. They demand to know why a rescue was not attempted by, say, lowering a rope or halter to the child while keeping a rifle trained on the ape in case anything went wrong. That, they insist, would have allowed for the possibility of a win-win outcome. The third camp includes those who were more interested in assigning blame to the zoo for it's presumably inadequate habitat barriers or to the mother for her perceived negligence.

Controversies aside, however, there are three lessons to be learned to avoid these tragedies in the future.

1. We vastly underestimate the intelligence of apes, and vastly overestimate their predilection for violence.

Gorillas are highly intelligent, intensely social, and for the most part peaceful. Primatologist Frans de Waal describes them this way: 

I should also clarify, since people on Facebook have said that gorillas are dangerous predators, that this is entirely wrong. A gorilla doesn’t look at a human child as something edible. The species is not interested in catching moving objects the way cats are. Lions or tigers are predators, but gorillas are peaceful vegetarians. They prefer a juicy fruit over a piece of meat any time of the day. The one thing that reliably makes a gorilla male mad is another male who enters his territory or gets too close to his females and young. Haramba surely knew that he was not dealing with competition, hence had no reason to attack.  

There are several previous cases of toddlers falling into gorilla enclosures, one at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and another at Jersey Zoo (UK). In both cases, the children survived the attention of the apes, in one case even receiving assistance from them. At Rotterdam Zoo, a gorilla jumped the moat to get close to a woman who often visited, and also here the incident ended without a gorilla death.  

Here is a video of the incident at the Brookfield Zoo in which a female gorilla carried an unconscious child to the zookeeper's gate so that a human could retrieve the child. 

Here is a video of the incident at the British zoo in which a child fell into the gorilla enclosure, and they gorillas gently touched and guarded him, returning to their indoor enclosure when they were called. 

2. If they are that smart, then they can be trained (like children are) on how to respond to this kind of situation.

Rather than fretting over how to make the barriers stronger, higher, and more dangerous in order to keep humans out, why not capitalize on primate intelligence to develop a strategic training response to this kind of situation? Apes are already trained by zookeepers to return to their indoor enclosures when they hear a particular call or alarm, as the females in Harambe's group did. So why not train them to do the same thing when something unexpected drops from above into their enclosures? Lifelike mannequins or other human-like objects could be used in the training. Or, for the truly courageous, trained personnel who can be quickly lowered and raised via halter.

3. The ingenuity of human children should not be underestimated.

If there is a way over it, under it, around it, or through it, a child will find it. So zoos must ensure that barriers are unclimbable. Even with such a fence, however, assume that there is an appreciably non-zero probability that a child, a teenager taking a selfie, or a drunk adult is going to fall into the enclosure at some point in the future (see point 2).

4. In crisis situations, people too often fall back on a "humans are more important than animals" bias that leads invariably to tragedies.

Once this bias is activated, the likelihood of seeking win-win, nonviolent solutions to threatening or potentially threatening situations plummets. Some people deliberately invoke this bias to justify killing animals even when humane solutions are possible.

Conclusion: The case of Harambe in many respects is a modern day version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Fear seems to have been the primary factor underlying the decision to shoot rather than attempt a rescue—fear of a gorilla's superhuman strength, fear for the child's safety, fear of the unknown. The best antidote to fear-based decision-making is information. The more we know about other species and how they view the world, the wiser we can be in our decisions regarding them.

You can find fellow PT blogger Marc Bekoff's comments about this incident here. Dr. Bekoff is an ethologist and co-founder (with Jane Goodall) of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins May 31, 2016

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

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