Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

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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13 Responses to Update and Thoughts on The Tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla

  1. Leta Jones says:

    Harambe was a family member of the humans who hand raised him. They dedicated 14 years of their loving care to him and are heartbroken. Their graciousness in this horrific tragedy is below:

    http://gpz.org/statement-regarding-loss-of-gorilla/

  2. Erin Jones says:

    I agree. I think the model for captive animals needs to be revamped. Organized groups, rules and more consideration to welfare of animals in care. If the concern is diminishing human experience, perhaps more informational programs, guided tours and more emphasis on research and government funded programs should be considered for all species, both human and other than human alike.

  3. donna Lussier says:

    We care enough for our dogs to leash/harness them, why not our children.

    • agreed! it’s not to be mean it’s to keep them safe!

      • Lacee says:

        I also agree!! I harnessed/leashed my children after my 2 1/2 year old jerked his hand out of mine and dashed in front of a moving car all in a split second. He’s now 32 and dining quite well in spite of being harnessed/leashed. No ill effects. My middle child would cry when I felt he was old enough not to dash off because I wasn’t going to put his on him. He also is a very well adjusted 26 year old with no ill effects from being leashed. They all felt safe. They also have no memories of wearing a leash or harness.

  4. Someone says:

    I raised my daughter while I was a single disabled parent. She was the sort of child that would have a thought and take off. In high risk situations with lots of people around I used a harness on her. It worked for us and kept her safe.

  5. Cheryl Borgen says:

    When my kids were 4 and 2 and I planned a trip to California, I had a girlfriend make me two harnesses that I could attach to my waist. While at the beach, I have a picture of both kids trying to run in opposite directions, but unable to because of the leash. I figured it was better than drowning. In case someone is wondering, I am a pretty strict parent but a realist. My kids lived and are now 18 and 17.

  6. Heather says:

    How about we stop keeping animals captive for our enjoyment. As a dog trainer and vegan I can’t get past the fact that this gorilla, trapped in his enclosure, was shot to death when someone entered it. Those parents should have jumped in to save the child.

  7. Sandy says:

    Let this be a lesson for all parents out there who let their kids run amuck, especially in public places. Then get defensive (oh, yes they do) when you mention a helpful suggestion to them.

    It’s not unlike the saying, “no bad dogs, just bad dog owners”. Same thing.

  8. Mel says:

    Someone left the comment on your last post that “obviously, children are not dogs.” The reply to that is “duhhhh,” but leashes still work great on kids. They’re not demeaning, they’re not dehumanizing–they’re a safety measure, and if your sense of aesthetics or dignity or what other people will think is the only thing preventing you from leashing your kid, maybe you shouldn’t have one. Safety of a child far outweighs aesthetics, and kids have no dignity anyway; my three boys were never happier than when they were sitting in the driveway trying to eat gravel, so dignity is not a real consideration for a child. I had a two-year-old boy and was pregnant with another when my office required me to go on a teambuilding held on a riverboat and my babysitter was busy. I took my toddler with a harness and leash, and thank heaven I did as i could not have chased him all over that boat. He had a great time and I was able to keep track of him, and that was all that mattered to me. If the mother of that little boy had had him harnessed, she would have had a pleasant outing, the boy would have had fun, and Harambe would still be alive. And that’s all there is to it.

  9. Thank you Nicole for this thoughtful response to such a sad happening.

  10. Lise Lausiva says:

    The death of Harambe was a horrible outcome in this situation, but then again, this was a no win situation for any person or animal. Looking at it from another point of view, what would all the blame and mud slinging posts be saying if the zookeepers had elected not to kill Harambe and the result was watching him throw the child around, squeeze him to tight or worse, and the child had died? Would all the hue and cry be directed to the zoo, stating they made the wrong decision by allowing a dangerous animal to kill a child? From my point of view, there were no viable options available for this to have a happy ending for either Harambe or the humans involved. So the best we can do is to grieve the tragedy and loss of this beautiful animal and move on to how this can be avoided again. Your post addresses moving forward in a well thought out and eloquent way, Nicole. Thank you for your wise words.

    On another note, my Mom put me in a harness when we were headed out into the world when I was a small child (over 60 years ago!) and I loved it. I always felt safe as I was connected to my Mom – a twist on an umbilical cord, I suppose! All these years later, I still remember what that harness looked like and how I looked forward to having it on when we were out on busy public streets.

  11. Zoo’s also have strollers and wagons available for use also I believe? I do not have children as well but I think in a zoo that big I would have my child at that age latched to me!

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