Killing Harambe: Who Was Protecting Whom?

Animals, anthropomorphism, & moral judgments based on media-filtered information

Posted May 31, 2016

Joe Pierre
Ennui, Joe Pierre
Source: Joe Pierre

For many of us, our collective attentions on Sunday May 29, 2016 were drawn to alarming news headlines announcing that officials at the Cincinnati Zoo had killed a gorilla named Harambe after a 4-year old child had fallen into its enclosure. At the time, most of the articles ran with the following video that seemed to show Harambe, a 17-year old, 450-pound silverback, interacting in a seemingly harmless way that left many with the impression that he was even protecting the child:

This led to a rapid outcry, questioning why the gorilla had to be put down, or why it wasn’t simply tranquilized. And then soon enough, the public’s finger of blame seemed to shift from zoo officials to the child’s mother, even going so far as to suggest – in the sadly predictable fashion of online discourse – that the boy's father should be put to death.

As is typical of moral outrage, judgments were swift, decisive, and retributive.

But soon we learned that they were also based on inadequate information.

The next day, the same video – but this time unedited – was released showing that Harambe had twice dragged the child through the water with considerable force. This presented a completely different picture of potential harm, making the eventual disappearance of both gorilla and child around a corner disturbingly ominous:

As zoo officials defended their decision, explaining that tranquilizers would delay the child’s rescue and could potentially cause Harambe to become aggressive, we learned that Harambe later pulled the child up a retaining wall, causing the child to repeatedly hit his head and later sustain a concussion. No video of this, or of the child going past the fence and falling into the enclosure in the first place, has yet surfaced or been released.

Looking past our feelings about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the Harambe’s killing, there are lessons to be learned about the psychology of how we observe and process such incidents.

First, it can be dangerously misleading to anthropomorphize animal behavior. Didn't Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man, teach us that? Just because Harambe held the child’s hand and didn't immediately rend the child limb from limb doesn’t mean that his behavior was protective. And even it if was protective, what was Harambe protecting the child from? From the screaming of the child’s mother and other onlookers? If Harambe was threatened by the crowd, would he have just handed over the child as if in some Hollywood cinema hostage negotiation?

Both armchair and legitimate animal experts have since made various claims that Harambe’s intent, but the bottom line is that it's nearly impossible to infer the intention of a large male gorilla in captivity interacting with a human child. We simply don’t have enough data to make such inferences. A similar case in 1996 ended with a gorilla “saving” a boy who fell into an enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, but the gorilla in question was a female. In the wild, infanticide by male gorillas is not uncommon.

Second, beyond being unknowable, Harambe’s intention was irrelevant. In a Psychology Today piece by Dr. Marc Bekoff, he quotes his “friend” Ms. Jennifer Miller as saying that Harambe’s dragging the child through water was "non-aggressive," reflecting a common behavior among gorillas and their offspring. Here it's suggested that Harambe was reverse-anthropomorphizing, treating the human toddler as if it was another gorilla. Not only could that be dangerous – the child could have easily hit his head while being dragged by his leg – the child reportedly was later injured, sustaining a concussion after hitting his head on concrete while being pulled up the enclosure wall.

Finally, and most importantly, we humans would do well to reserve our moral judgments until we have all the facts. This is especially true as we search for evidence online. In this case, the initial video was edited to exclude Harambe’s dragging the child through the water. That told one story. But then the unedited video including those scenes told a different story. And if video ever emerges showing the child being pulled up the retaining wall, “his head banging on concrete” along the way, that might tell yet another one. We like to say that “seeing is believing,” but in the age of the internet when everyone carries a video camera, we risk making ill-informed moral judgments based on information that has been filtered, edited, and even distorted in myriad ways.

Moral judgments seem to have evolved in humans as a way of preserving social order. But while we often think of morality as a higher-order process that sets us apart from animals, moral decision-making is often made in a knee-jerk fashion with revenge in mind. A more evolved approach to moral decision making should involve a careful weighing of evidence with a cautious awareness of our instinct for violent retribution.

In the end, the moral of this story is that we need to remind ourselves that animals are not people, but people are animals. As with all animals, we often risk let our instincts, reactions, emotions, and brains get the better of us.



Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/psychunseen. To check out some of my fiction, click here to read the short story "Thermidor," published in Westwind last year.