Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place?


Amid the debate over who was at fault in the death of a beloved animal, we need to step back and ask a different question

Unidentified male western lowland gorilla, Cincinnati Zoo Credit: By Mark Dumont via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Harambe, a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla, was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo to save the life of a four-year-old child who fell into his cage. Opinions vary as to whether the boy was really in danger and who was to blame, the zoo (why was the boy able to get into the enclosure and why wasn’t Harambe tranquilized?) his mother, or both? Playing the blame game will not bring Harambe back and for me the real question, while also considering why Harambe was killed, is “Why was Harambe in the zoo in the first place?”

As I watched footage of the event I was reminded of an incident that happened in 1996 at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in which a female western lowland gorilla named Binta Jua rescued a three-year-old boy who fell into her enclosure. She became a worldwide celebrity. I also thought about the movie King Kong.

People worldwide are outraged by Harambe’s death. This global interest is all part of a heightened awareness about the nature of human-animal relationships, the focus of a rapidly growing field called anthrozoology. People are keenly interested in how and why nonhuman animals – animals – are used by humans in a wide variety of venues, in this case “in the name of human entertainment.”

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.

Harambe’s cage also was his home where he felt safe. When the boy fell into his home it was a trespass of sorts, and it’s most likely Harambe was startled, perhaps feeling vulnerable and unprotected, and wondering what was going on. Let’s not forget that gorillas and many other animals are highly intelligent and emotional beings and they deeply care about what happens to themselves, their families and their friends. In this case Harambe did what was expected, he picked up the boy, but he didn’t harm him. Of course Harambe could have killed the boy in a heartbeat, but he didn’t.

An analysis of Harmabe’s behavior published in another essay I wrote indicates that he was doing what one would expect a western lowland gorilla to do with a youngster. Harmabe’s hold on the child and his sheltering of the youngster are indicators of protection. He didn’t seem to be afraid. He examined the boy but also was attentive to the reaction of the crowd who saw what happened and the communication between the child’s mother and her son.

Along these lines, it’s essential that the people who work with zoo-ed animals know their behavior in detail, and those people who know individuals the best—the caretakers who interact with certain individuals daily—be called in in emergency situations. Each animal has a unique personality and this knowledge could be put to use to avoid what happened to Harambe.

For people who want to know more about what was going on in Harmabe’s head and heart, think about your companion dog, for example. How do they respond when someone trespasses into where they feel safe? I like to ask people to use their companion animals to close the empathy gap because people get incredibly upset when a dog is harmed because they see dogs as sentient, feeling beings. So too, was Harambe.

So, would you allow your dog to be put in a zoo? If not, then why Harambe and millions of other individuals who languish behind bars?

It’s not happening at the zoo

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?

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. Zoos also should be turned into sanctuaries for the animals themselves. 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.

We humans are constantly making decisions about who lives and who dies, and we need to focus our attention on the animals themselves, and put their lives first and foremost. The rapidly growing international field called compassionate conservation comes into play here. The guiding principles of compassionate conservation are “First do no harm” and “the lives of all individuals matter.”

Turning a moment into a movement

I hope Harambe did not die in vain, 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.

15 thoughts on “Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place?

  1. Poor guy. That Texas zoo where Harambe was born and raised must be ruing the day they ever let him go – he didn’t even live two years in Cincinnati. I’ve been reading about the zookeeper who raised him. Total chaos – they are focusing on the saving of the child to deflect the fact that they had no idea what they were doing when the kid fell in, or why it was that he was able to get by it in the first place. Shoot first, ask questions later – just like everywhere else today.

    I was aghast that a no-nothing interviewer included a blurb from a Disney park architect – no biologist or zoologist – in an article I was reading that today’s zoos want to keep them as open as possible for the experience of the visitors. No mention of the animals. Just shaking my head at the incompetence, total ineptness, and utter cluelessness. Negligent. That poor, poor animal.

    Now they want to only raise the barrier a half a foot. This place is truly shocking.

      • The Gladys Porter Zoo where Harambe was born has set up a memorial fund for the the Mbeli Bai study, part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, in Africa. They’re working on helping the lowland gorillas, along with elephants, forest buffalo and apparently other unfortunates in the path human destruction.

        Every time something like this happens, I’m flabbergasted at human stupidity, meanness, and arrogance. We always come first no matter how wrong or provocative our behavior. I’m tired of the experts, the Jack Hanna’s and the zoo managers, falling all over themselves assuring the public that the animals will die before any human harm can come (fearful of law suits, loss of income, and being called “animal lovers”?).

        We think we’re superior and intelligent, yet the zoo couldn’t keep Harambe safe in his own enclosure from the meanderings of a 3-year-old and a mother whose mind was elsewhere (on getting the right selfie shot?).

        At the end of the post in the middle link (below), the author wonders if Harambe “was better off out of it.” Sadly, maybe he is.

  2. If you have an emesis basin handy and you have sins you want to atone for, you could read some of the comments on the other posts on the Internet. The speciesists, fools, idiots, trolls, and failed comedians are out in force. Poor Harambe was worth more than the lot of them put together.

    • Well put, and I have to say that with today’s medicine, I really question that a tranquilizer would have taken too long to work. Shooting a bullet could have had unintended consequences as well. The zoo panicked, probably their minds blotted out by ‘liability! liability!’ The last time at this dump, when the polar bears got out, they had the visitors leave quietly and orderly. Here there was complete chaos. Screeching onlookers must have made it that much worse. I am so thoroughly disgusted I really don’t know what else to say. Except, please don’t let these idiots expand the gorilla exhibit only to neglect and torture any more poor animals!!!!!!

      • The hardest thing is that the inattention by both the zoo and probably the mother were so preventable and the results were so catastrophic for Harambe. The fence can be fixed, and kid will grow up, but the gorilla is no longer on this earth.

      • It’s the mindset that has me aghast. Stuff happens of course; but this zoo was so callous it was just going to shoot the gorilla and then go back to business as usual! The director needs to be fired, and the zoo given a thorough inspection. I wish it would close for good. And the comments – people are ‘more important’ – what frightens me is that if Harambe were the last gorilla on earth, the same thing would have happened. And then adding insult to injury – ‘don’t worry, we’ve saved his semen’ (which they obtained invasively). Humans are a narcissistic species, and it’s easy to see how Nazism came to be.

      • What I mean is that instead of being a personality disorder of individuals, narcissism seems to be a cultural disorder, especially for American culture, maybe a human thing in general. If you read the warning signs such as lack of empathy, entitlement, exploitation of others without regard to feelings, exaggerated opinion of one’s own attributes, etc., our culture ticks of all the boxes, with very few exceptions.

  3. Now this is interesting. The wording of this article from the Toledo paper implies they did not have tranquilizer available? They are also calling for the firing of the director and a boycott of the zoo:

    “Zoo officials should not have done that [shot Harambe]. They misjudged the animal’s actions. Moreover, zoo and law enforcement officials could have used a tranquilizer dart, which, if employed properly, would have put the animal down quickly. The tranquilizer and someone who knew how to shoot the dart, and in the proper dosage, should have been readily available.”


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