Why Was the Gorilla Harambe Killed at the Cincinnati Zoo and Why Was He There in the First Place? It's Time to End to Captive Breeding

Grief and outrage

Many people worldwide already know about the killing of a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo to save the life of a 4-year-old child who fell into the gorilla's cage (please also see Bron Taylor's "The Value of a Gorilla vs. a Human"). The boy apparently told his mother he wanted to meet Harambe and crawled under a rail and over the wall of the moat. As usual, my inbox was ringing constantly with different reports. Indeed, the title of Peter Holley's essay in the Washington Post is called "'Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder: Grief over gorilla's death turns to outrage."

What can be done to avoid such unnecessary killings?

Opinions vary widely about whether or not the boy's parents are to blame and should be charged for negligence, and whether Harambe should have been killed. As I watched footage of the event I was reminded of an incident at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo in which a female western lowland gorilla named Binta Jua rescued a 3-year-old boy who fell into her enclosure.

We can also ask if the zoo is to blame. Why was the boy able to get under the rail, had zoo workers practiced the sorts of rescues brought on by these events, why wasn't Harambe tranquilized? Would a tranquilizer have been too slow-acting? Despite claims that Harambe's home was a safe haven, clearly it wasn't. Playing the blaming game won't get us very far because the real questions at hand are, "Why was Harambe in a zoo in the first place?" and "Should zoos continue to produce more animals who will spend their entire lives in a cage?"

We can't undo Harambe's death but we can, and must, ask these sorts of questions. We also must be sure that all zoo personnel are prepared for unexpected emergencies and are adequately trained to respond where lives are on the line, because killing Harambe is a tragedy.


Analyzing Harambe's behavior after he met the child

Jane Goodall, the world-renowned British primatologist and conservationist, said in an email she feels for Cincinnati Zoo executive Thane Maynard.

Goodall, in an email sent to Maynard the day after the shooting death of 17-year-old lowland gorilla Harambe, told Maynard she felt "so sorry for you, having to try to defend something which you may well disapprove of."

"I tried to see exactly what was happening - it looked as though the gorilla was putting an arm round the child - like the female who rescued and returned the child from the Chicago exhibit," Goodall wrote in the email to Maynard, dated Sunday night. "Anyway, whatever, it is a devastating loss to the zoo, and to the gorillas. How did the others react? Are they allowed to see, and express grief, which seems to be so important.

"Feeling for you."

I know how serious this situation is so let me be clear that this is a horrible incident and I know that people have to make split decisions they sometimes come to regret. But others and I still are not convinced that Harambe could not have been tranquilized and that regular rescue drills centering on this sort of event could have resulted in Harambe still being alive and the little boy being returned to safety.

I don't know much more about the behavior of gorillas than what I read in texts and research papers, so I asked Jennifer Miller some questions, as she has worked closely with these beings. Jennifer wrote in an email, "Harambe's movements and positions during the encounter presented nothing more than curiosity and protection for an unfamiliar child inside his environment. What I learned from studying captive Western Lowland gorillas at the Cleveland Zoo was that they are deep contemplators. They are observers more than reactive aggressors. They move their eyes, lips, and heads slowly to communicate through subtle movements. They are rarely vocal and rarely dramatically expressive. Even when threatened by other gorillas, an individual will choose to avoid confrontation more often than engage in harmful behaviors. In avoidance, gorillas often run past other individuals beating their chest, stand still on all four limbs biting their lips or they will hit a wall, tree, anything close and then run off. The only protection that Harambe had that day was the zoo enclosure he was locked inside. That protection was violated by the human public, at which point Harambe became unprotected and was more at risk than the child. He did not stand a chance at human forgiveness as soon as the child entered his enclosure. And the proof lays in the bullet that shot him dead."

Jane Goodall also has noted, "It looked as though the gorilla was putting an arm round the child." And, along these lines, primatologist Amy Parish wrote, "It is extremely unlikely that Harambe meant to be aggressive towards Isaiah. A gorilla would not likely recognize a small human child as a threat. In nature, a silverback male lives with a group of females that produce offspring he has sired. The silverback male is a benevolent leader, with extremely rare bursts of aggression in response to perceived threats to the safety of his troop or a marauding gorilla male intent on taking his female troop-mates from him. Indeed, among the apes, gorillas have the most "fatherly" reputation of all."

Ms. Miller goes on, "Harambe's hold on the child and his sheltering of the child inside his stance, are all indications of protection. Harambe did not view this most unexpected encounter through a lens of fear. Not only was Harambe examining the child in front of him but he was also attentive to the other changes in his environment--the movement of the crowd, the communication between mother and child, the positioning of strangers in areas of his exhibit where they are not normally."

Moving forward, caretakers, who are responsible for the day-to-day well-being of the zoo's residents and who form personal relationships with them, must be involved in preparing for emergency situations such as this. It's these people "on the ground" who know the animals the best and who regularly communicate with them. They also could well be the people who could communicate the animal out of danger so it could be a win-win for all involved. Harambe, like all other gorillas and numerous other zoo-ed animals, are highly intelligent and emotional beings who depend on us to respect and value their cognitive capacities that could well be put to use in potentially dangerous situations. Clearly, knowing about the behavior of each animal, as an individual with a unique personality, is essential for the well-being of every captive being.

Zoo-ed animals and their loss of freedoms: Why was Harambe in a zoo in the first place?

Another point many people make is that animals like Harambe should not be kept in zoos in the first place. I totally agree, but this discussion at this point deflects attention from the event at the Cincinnati Zoo that could have and should have been avoided. In the best of all possible worlds Harambe would not have lived as a caged animal and the little boy would not have entered Harambe's home. The case of all zoo-ed animals must be openly discussed because their lives are so horrifically compromised and numerous freedoms lost as they are forced to live in small cages for human entertainment.

In all, Harambe's freedoms were taken from him the moment he was born into captivity and his protection taken from him when his space was violated by human activities. While it's most likely that Harambe and other animals kept in cages in zoos would prefer to be free, it's also likely that he viewed his cage as his home and felt safe in familiar environs.

Let's remember in head and heart that Harambe was killed for being forced to live in a cage for the benefit of others, not his own.

Harambe was a captive-bred zoo-ed animal

Harambe was in the zoo because he was captive born, and breeding animals who are going to live out the rest of their lives in cages raises numerous issues. However, that is precisely why Harambe was living in the Cincinnati Zoo. Being a zoo-ed animal, Harmabe lost all of his freedoms - the freedoms to make choices about how he was to live, what he would eat, when he would sleep and go to the bathroom, where he would roam, and if he were to become a father. While some might say Harmabe had a "good life" in the zoo, it doesn't come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.

Captive breeding by zoos to produce individuals who are going to live out their lives in cages, in the name of entertainment and possibly in the name of education and conservation, raises many challenging questions. Did people who saw Harambe learn anything about what the life of a male western lowland gorilla is really like? No, they didn't. Did they learn something about these fascinating animals that would help Harambe or his wild relatives? Clearly, nothing learned would help Harambe as he was forced to live in his cage; a large enclosure is still a cage. Harambe was not going to be put out in the wild and introduced to other gorillas

Did people learn something about these gorillas that would help wild relatives? Once again, likely not. While some might argue that learning about Harambe is good for conserving his species, and while many of us know someone who went to a zoo and said they learned something new about a given species, there's no hard evidence that these people then go on to do something for the good of the species. Indeed, a recent study conducted by zoos themselves, showed that what people learn is very limited in scope in terms of what the new knowledge means in any practical sense. While a very small percentage of people learn that maintaining biodiversity is important, they don't learn about the need for biodiversity conservation.

Where do we go from here? Stop captive breeding and sperm collecting and turn zoos into client-centered sanctuaries

Harambe is dead and the boy is alive. I'm very sad, and also very happy. A gorilla's life was traded off because a human child was in danger. What needs to be done in the future to be sure that events like this never happen again? First, zoos need to stop breeding animals who are going to live in zoos for the rest of their lives. But, clearly, administrators at the Cincinnati Zoo disagree as they have collected Harambe's sperm so that there's a future for Harambe (please also see).

Zoos also should be turned into sanctuaries for the animals themselves (please also see Koen Margot's book The Welfare Ark: Suggestions for a Renewed Policy for Zoos). Over time there will be fewer and fewer captive animals and zoos as we know them can be phased out. And, the money that is saved as time goes on can be used to preserve populations of wild animals and their homes. These sorts of changes will take time and we need to be very patient, but we need to move in this direction.

As we move on, the choices we make should emphasize preservation of wild animals and critical habitats, and we need to move away from captive breeding and the zoo mentality of keeping animals locked in cages for our entertainment--and supposedly for their own and their species' good.

Turning a moment into a movement

I hope Harambe did not die in vain (although his sperm lives on) and that this moment can be turned into a movement that is concerned with the plight of captive animals. Judging by what is sailing into my email inbox each minute and by worldwide media coverage, it already is. The publicity generated by killing Harambe can and must be used to save the lives of numerous other captive animals. We must face the difficult questions that arise because animals are "in" and the questions are not going to disappear.

Harambe and Binta Jua revisited

In the end, Harambe's own sense of security was violated, as was Binta Jua's. However, Binta Jua survived and was hailed worldwide as a heroine, whereas Harambe was killed and his death is being carefully scrutinized globally. Perhaps Harambe also will come to be called a hero, but besides his surviving sperm, he no longer is around.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)