Update and Thoughts on the Harambe the Gorilla Tragedy

Unless you've been living under a rock, 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 three 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 to the incident was overwhelming across social media, where heated conversations and comments proliferated. Two main contingents 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. You can visit her website, follow her on Facebook and view her photography/art here.