Yet another human vs. wild animal encounter has been blowing up social media. This time it is Harembe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, who was shot when a young boy climbed into his habitat.
There is plenty of blame going around, from blaming the mother for not paying attention to her kid in the first place, to the zoo personnel for using lethal force to kill Harembe instead of a tranquilizer gun to subdue him and rescue the kid.
I’m not going to jump on the bad-mother bandwagon, but I will say the mother is responsible for her kid’s actions. Zoos have enclosures, designed to prevent the animals from getting out. These open air enclosures do not prevent the most determined of people from getting in. Zoos have eschewed view-limiting barriers and standard cages to give zoo-goers a better look at the animal and a personal experience. This is where your responsibility as a zoo patron comes in to play. You are responsible for your own actions, and that of your child. By all accounts, it took some serious determination for the kid to climb in there. He crawled under a wire and over a barrier before he fell into the habitat. It wasn’t an accident. He did what kids do and went exploring.
But the real issue I want to discuss is the actions of the zookeepers. They are taking a lot of heat for using immediate lethal force to kill the gorilla instead of first trying to tranquilize him. I hate to think the gorilla had to die, but they absolutely made the right decision. Zoo personnel had mere moments to respond to a very serious crisis and they chose the response for the best outcome of the human.
Back in the days of working for our state wildlife agency, I saw numerous wild animals tranquilized. I’ve watched a lot of video footage, too, and sat in on a class about tranquilizing wildlife. It is not an exact science. It is not foolproof. Tranquilizer darts can miss their mark, or fail to penetrate the animal. Even if the process is executed correctly, tranqs can take a while to kick in. And some animals react very poorly to being tranquilized. They can quickly turn aggressive and angry or even blindly lumber about. It isn’t like you’ve seen it portrayed in the movies where the dart penetrates and the animal immediately falls over, lights out.
Gorillas are incredibly strong. Ten times as strong as a human, by all accounts. All it took was one violent shake, one slap, one swing of his arm or stomping of Harembe’s foot and that little boy is dead. Harambe might not have intended to hurt the boy, but he was 400 pounds of unpredictable muscle and strength. He ignored the call the zoo keepers tried first, and was getting noticeably agitated at the screams of the people above.
Social media has been buzzing with people claiming the gorilla was protecting the child, citing how Harembe was standing guard over the boy. Was he? I have no idea. I am not an expert on gorilla behavior, and neither are the approximately 12.42 million people talking about it. But I do know wildlife are unpredictable and can go from nice to lethal in a heartbeat. Remember the woman whose face was all but eaten off from someone’s pet chimp? Or when Roy of Sigfried and Roy fame was attacked by his own tiger?
I also know that male gorillas will kill unrelated infant gorillas. Harembe might have been protecting the child. Or he might have been standing over his “prize” until he decided what to do with it. Regardless, the boy was in an incredibly dangerous predicament.
Zoo personnel weighed the life of the gorilla against the life of the human boy, and the boy won out. From a purely jaded standpoint, too, think of the lawsuit this zoo would face if they had attempted to tranq the gorilla and the boy had been severely harmed or killed. It likely would have shut down the zoo completely. We live in a human centered world and in that world, they made the best choice they could given the really crappy situation. It wasn’t a good or popular choice, but it was the best of the alternatives.
My heart goes out to the zoo employees. No one takes a job working with wild animals wanting to see them harmed or killed. They will mourn the death of Harembe and feel his loss deeply. And I am saddened that a another magnificent and endangered creature had to be destroyed because of human mistakes.
There’s an online petition circulating called Justice for Harembe that wants the parents of the boy charged for their role in the death of the gorilla. But that won’t help bring him back, and it won’t help the other critically endangered mountain gorillas. But you can help. Donate to an organization like the Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund or your local zoo. You can’t help Harembe, but you can help.