To Kill or Not to Kill? And Other Thoughts on the Harambe Case

I bet you’ve heard about the recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo where a 4-year-old child fell into the “Gorilla World” enclosure where he came face-to-face with a critically endangered, male western lowland silverback gorilla, Harambe. For those of you unaware of this incident (read: living under a rock), here’s a quick summary.

On Saturday, a 4-year-old boy snuck away from his mother and found his way into Harambe’s enclosure. A cell-phone video of the incident shows Harambe grabbing the child by his ankle and dragging him through the water. Because the zoo officials thought the child was in life-threatening danger, they decided the best move was to shoot to kill Harambe.

This tragedy has sparked outrage from people on social media, where everyone is pointing fingers. Was the mother to blame for not watching her child more closely? Did the zoo make the wrong decision to shoot to kill instead of tranquillize? How did the boy get in the enclosure in the first place; shouldn’t the zoo be at fault? Why didn’t any bystanders stop the boy from running into the enclosure?

Normally this is the time I would input my two-cents, but this issue isn’t as black and white as everyone makes it seem. And I’m not one to point fingers. But I am one to see all sides of an argument.

The “Right” Choice?

Let me remind you of a similar incidence in August of 1996, where a 3-year-old boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, knocked unconscious, and rescued by a female gorilla named Binti Jua. She carefully took the boy in her arms and brought him to the zookeepers.

Although I’m not an expert on primate behavior, it appears that in the footage from the recent Cincinnati instance, Harambe was curious about the boy’s presence and tried to protect him. Only when the crowd started screaming did Harambe appear agitated.

Apes are highly intelegent (even more so than some humans…) and they are peaceful vegetarians. The video shows Harambe gently handling the boy, even when dragging him through the water. The boy didn’t cry or seem to be scared at all, perhaps because he didn’t feel in danger.

But even so, this is a 450 pound gorilla we’re talking about. Even though Harambe had no intention of injuring the boy, one strike or misstep, and Harambe could have killed him.

Rather than shooting to kill, another option would have been to tranquillize Harambe. But as the zoo director and other experts have indicated, the tranquilizer would have taken up to 10 minutes to go into effect and there is no way to anticipate what would have happened in that time frame. Tranquilizers can make wild animals lash out.

Perhaps, a rescue could have been performed, if the caretakers had better known the individual gorilla they were dealing with.

We can talk about this for days, weeks, months, or even years, but that was never the option for the Cincinnati Zoo staff. They had to make a decision in seconds/minutes, and their decision happened to be based on fear for the child’s life.

Perhaps they made the right one, but perhaps it was just a senseless killing. Who am I to judge this unfamiliar situation?

As world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall said to the Zoo, “I feel sorry for you having to try to defend something which you may well disprove of.”

Will Justice be Served?

There are many, many people lashing out against the parents of the boy who fell into the enclosure, and they seek negligence charges against the parents. And there are currently investigations underway; police are investigating the family and the USDA is investigating the zoo.

There is no way to determine if either of these investigations will result in “justice” being served. Even if charges against the family are filed or the zoo’s Gorilla World enclosure is forever shut down, will justice have been served?

Remember Cecile the Lion? Or the killing of Marius, the “surplus” griaffe? Although this recent incident is not related to trophy hunting or mindless killing, it has generated similar amounts of media coverage. It seems as though Harambe’s death may be another notch on this list of human-animal conflict, a list that has been growing steadily over numerous years.

As for this zoo “wildlife” and human conflict, we should all take home a very important bit of information- increase your awareness.

If the zookeepers had known exactly what they were dealing with- not just the type of animal but also the individual– there may have been a different protocol that could have saved both the child and Harambe. And even with more protective enclosures, young children can get anywhere they want to be, even if it means squeezing through a fence and jumping 12-feet into a moat. So mothers and caretakers alike, expecially in potentially-dangerous and public areas, keep an eye on your child(ren) at all times- for their own safety but also for the safety of everybody else around you.

Pointing fingers won’t change what happened. But take your passion for this horrible tragedy and turn it into a learning experience.

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