Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

May 31, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo — not Harambe

Chances are, you’re aware of the recent tragedy that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo when a 4-year-old boy slipped under a railing, crawled across some wires and a moat and ended up in an enclosure with 3 gorillas. The two females were lured out by zookeepers but Harambe, a male 17-year-old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) remained. The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes, and the decision was made by the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team to shoot Harambe to save the boy.

Upon hearing about this I, like so many others, was incredibly saddened and angered. I blogged about it here. Response was overwhelming, as it was across all social media where conversations and articles abound. Two main contingents have emerged: those who blame the mother (in some cases calling for there to be legal action or worse), and those who blame the zoo.

As I stated previously I’m not a parent, and I’m sure that keeping eyes glued to a 4-year-old 24/7 is difficult. Eyewitnesses stated that the boy had been telling his mother he wanted to go into the enclosure, so one could argue that extra vigilance was needed. It can’t be denied that the whole tragedy would have been avoided had her eyes been on her son at that moment, but I’m guessing kids say all kinds of strange things, and seldom act on them in this kind of dramatic way. And, as many have stated, kids can slip away from parents in the blink of an eye. I’ve been shocked at the amount of vitriol that has been aimed at the mother. Regardless of whether she’s even partly to blame, I do have empathy for both her and her son.

As far as blaming the zoo, videos show Harambe, among other things, dragging the boy across water and, some say, flinging him around. In a Psychology Today online article by noted author/behaviorist Marc Bekoff, he relates the analysis of friend Jennifer Miller who had worked with gorillas. She felt that “Harambe’s hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection.” A differing opinion is held by Amanda O’Donaghue, who worked with gorillas as a zookeeper in her twenties and wrote on Facebook “I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares…I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true.” She also opined that “Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent).” Clearly the zookeepers agreed with the latter. It’s easy for those who are outraged by Harambe’s death (and believe me, I’m one of them) to blame the zoo. But when dealing with exotics, especially potentially dangerous ones, split second decisions must be made. Was there any other choice? I don’t know. I have no doubt the zookeepers cared very much for Harambe and the last thing they wanted to do was to shoot him. They did so to save the boy. For those wondering why they didn’t use a tranquilizer instead, it’s because of the time the drugs can take to be effective. Having co-run a wolf rescue, I suspect it is also because using a tranquilizer on an animal who is already agitated can have the opposite of the desired effect.

So where does all of this leave us? This was undeniably a terrible tragedy for all concerned, particularly Harambe. Nothing can be done to bring him back. But if all we do is point fingers and engage in long, hateful conversations on social media, another layer of tragedy is added. The incident should spark heated discussions, yes—but productive ones, ones about what can actually be done to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. As I said in my original blog post, whether or not zoos should exist at all is a whole other topic. But since they do, for now, let’s take all of that energy that’s being put toward condemnation and come up with some solutions. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

  1. Have highly visible signage posted around the zoo with safety information. Ticket takers should also briefly but firmly mention the rules to visitors with young children.
  2. Have a staff member or volunteer posted at every exhibit containing a potentially dangerous animal. Give that person permission to step in and take action should they see a child (or adult) on a railing, crawling under something, or in an otherwise precarious position. This person should also have a radio to signal other staff.
  3. Anyone seen engaging in the type of behavior described above should be escorted from the zoo immediately. I don’t know whether zoos are able to fine visitors, but if they are, a hefty fine should be in place. Signage/ticket takers could warn of this as well.
  4. Making enclosures safer…this one is a no-brainer, but much easier said than done. Putting too much up in the way of bars/plexiglass/other barriers detracts from people actually being able to see the animal well (ask any photographer how they feel about plexiglass—and taking photos is a large part of the zoo experience). I have heard the suggestion of hotwire just outside the exhibit. I also read a response saying that if a child has a heart condition the shock could be dangerous. I don’t know about that, but if the latter is not true, in my opinion a shock would be the lesser of two evils when the other is being ripped apart by a wild animal.
  5. I did suggest the leash/harness combo for kids under a certain age, and by the response of mothers, I see that it might not be the right answer for everyone. But certainly more moms should be made aware of the option.

As we continue to grieve the loss of Harambe, I hope that something positive in the form of change and prevention can come from something so awful. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on what can be done to better the situation.

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Zoo Gorilla Shot After Child Enters Enclosure—and How These Tragedies Can be Prevented

May 29, 2016
gorilla L.A. Zoo

 

(A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo–not Harambe)

 

My blogs are normally about dogs. As an animal lover, however, I am so angered and saddened by a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo that I can’t help but speak out. Piecing together various accounts, here’s what happened: A 4-year-old boy crawled through a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. Zookeepers quickly moved the 2 female gorillas into another area, but the 17-year old male gorilla was still inside. An eyewitness reported that the gorilla “rushed toward the boy and led him by the arm through the water in the enclosure,” and that he, “seemed protective and only alarmed by all the screaming.” The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes with no injuries. The zoo president says, “while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.” The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response team felt a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and so, with the boy between the gorilla’s legs, they shot Harambe dead. The boy was taken to a hospital where he was determined to have sustained non-life-threatening but serious injuries.

How did this happen in the first place? To reach the gorillas, the boy had to go under the safety rail, crawl through wires, and climb over the moat wall. According to one eyewitness, the boy’s mother was “tending to several other children” when he slipped away. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this type of thing has happened. In 2014, a 3-year-old boy at the Little Rock Zoo “fell into” the big cat exhibit after his grandfather put him up on the railing to see the cats. A zookeeper reported seeing a yellow jaguar with its jaws around the neck of the boy. In this case, the staff used a fire extinguisher to drive the cat back, lower a ladder, and rescue the boy. The boy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Need more? Last year at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 2-year old boy fell into a cheetah exhibit. The boy’s mother was “holding him and another child” over the railing when he fell in. Fortunately, they were able to get the boy out and the cheetah seemed more curious than anything.

There have been many similar incidents at zoos over the years. I’m not a parent (unless you count my fur-kids), and I’m sure it’s difficult to keep an eye on your child 24/7. But in each of these cases, had a parent been supervising, not to mention not doing anything incredibly stupid like standing the child up on a railing or other precarious spot, these incidents would never have occurred. I spend time photographing zoo animals, and almost every time I visit I see exactly this kind of insanity.

Regardless of how you feel about whether zoos should exist, they do, and a large part of their income comes from families with children. Instead of blaming parents or zookeepers, what about coming up with a solution? Zoos should have more secure enclosures for sure, and having zoos amp up safety would be great. But since that might not happen anytime soon, here’s my idea. It has two parts: First, any family with a child that is seen up on a railing or other precarious area must be escorted out of the zoo immediately. Highly visible signage around the zoo should warn them this will happen. Second, there are harness/leash combinations that are specifically designed for children. Children of a certain age and below should be required to wear one while on zoo grounds. This would prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again. It would also prevent children from running into other visitors (something I have experienced quite often) and from getting lost. (Parents, I defer to you on particulars and if you don’t like this idea, I would love to hear others.)

The death of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla—a critically endangered species—could have easily been prevented. So could many other similar incidents. Let’s learn from this heartbreaking tragedy and change things so it can’t happen again.


Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

May 19, 2016

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.
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