The death of Harambe the Gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo this past weekend seems to have taken public interest by storm. News footage and articles have covered it relentlessly, social media posts have flooded our Facebook and Twitter feeds, bloggers like us have offered their take on the events, and we’re already nearing that point during a major current event where some folks are bemoaning or cracking jokes about how often they are having to hear about it. I’ve thought a lot about the situation over the past several days and discussed it at length with family and colleagues. I’ve seen the photos and the available video footage. And while I hate to add to the mountain of seemingly never-ending opinions about what transpired on Saturday, I feel there are a few words that need to be put out there in the world that I haven’t seen said anywhere else yet. And they’re words that just might save some lives in the future — both animal lives and human lives.
I love animals. Anyone who knows me, and often times even anyone who is slightly acquainted with me, can vouch for exactly how much I love animals. Most of the time, I believe that they are truly better than human beings. As humans, we are capable of some truly despicable and devastating behavior that any other living creature on this planet could never even conceive of. We’re cruel to them as well: We slaughter them to consume their flesh or wear their fur, we destroy and pave over their homes to make room for our own. We rip them away from their family at a young age to place them in circus acts, sideshows, aquariums and zoos. In Harambe’s case, he was born into captivity in 1999. It’s strange that I simultaneously feel saddened and thankful that he never knew a different life outside of an enclosure; saddened that he never got to roam and play in his natural habitat surrounded by others of his kind, but thankful because he never really knew what he was missing. But in spite of the life he lived, my heart aches that this happened to Harambe and that that life had to be cut short when it didn’t necessarily need to be. I wish things could have been different. I’m glad that the little boy was pulled from that enclosure safe and sound. But I wish that Harambe was still with us, too.
It was a difficult situation no matter how you spin it. We need to stop blaming the mother of the little boy. I don’t have any children of my own, but even I know from experience with a younger nephew and many younger cousins that kids can slip away from even the most responsible caretakers. Questions could be raised as to why none of the other people in the area that were screaming and only making the situation worse in all of the video footage didn’t notice the boy trying to get through any protective barriers or think to make a ruckus before the entire event took place. It takes a village, right? But maybe the crowd didn’t show up until well after the child was already in over his head and the mother was freaking out. We don’t really know for sure. There’s also no need to blame the zookeepers for reacting to the situation by ending Harambe’s life quickly to save the boy. It doesn’t seem like there were a whole lot of alternatives. It did look like Harambe was just as scared as the boy and like maybe he was trying to protect him from all the screaming onlookers, with the exception of those moments when he was running around and whipping the boy through the water behind him. Tranquilizers wouldn’t have been an option either — it would have taken at least a few minutes for it to set in, and by that time, Harambe would have been angered or alarmed even further and then who knows what would have happened?
The point is that 99% of you trying to crucify the mother or the zookeepers for Harambe’s death weren’t there. None of us were witness to the situation unfolding in front of us. We don’t know what went down in the heat of the moment. It’s certainly possible that the mother was totally negligent, that Harambe was violent and crazed, or that the zookeepers were just a little too trigger-happy. But unless you were there, there’s no way you could know for sure.
What we can do, however, is really begin examining the Cincinnati Zoo where all of this took place and perhaps the standards that all zoos are currently held to. Though it is absolutely the most deadly and high-profile case, the death of Harambe is the not the first time the Cincinnati Zoo has found themselves in hot water: Earlier this year two polar bears managed to get out of their usual enclosure into a secondary containment area, back in 2008 a gibbon got all the way to the parking lot and bit a man’s leg, in 2000 a cheetah escaped its enclosure and wandered free for a while, and all the way back in 1990, a polar bear bit off a zookeeper’s arm. The Cincinnati Zoo deserves some credit in that none of these previous incidents had any recorded casualties and, with the exception of the gibbon bite and the lost arm, nobody was even injured. But in light of the recent events with Harambe and the fact that they’re already planning on re-opening the gorilla exhibit, these past incidents are again a cause for concern and something that regulators should maybe start giving a closer look — both at this zoo and at zoos worldwide. Most animal activists would tell you that zoos are bad no matter what because no creature should be forced to live in captivity. While I agree with that argument, there are a lot of great zoos and aquariums out there that help educate and conserve endangered species and their native ecosystems. Furthermore, these zoos and aquariums are held to a better standard where visitor safety is first and foremost and the animals are kept well-fed and happy. We should start to worry about the welfare of our animals and the safety of those who train them and/or go to visit them when their credibility starts to falter because that’s the point where our great zoos start becoming indistinguishable from the likes of SeaWorld or the San Antonio Zoo.
If you truly seek #JusticeforHarambe, bettering our world’s zoos is where we start.