All the World’s a Stage: Thoughts on the Death of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla

All the World’s a Stage: Thoughts on the Death of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla

June 1, 2016

by Lee Hall

It’s a SeaWorld moment for the Cincinnati Zoo.

A gorilla named Harambe has been shot and killed.

And just as Blackfish—the film exposing everything wrong with using orcas for human observation and fun—reverberates beyond SeaWorld and challenges the existence of aquaria generally, so will Harambe force the public to rethink gorillas wherever we look at them. Harambe’s life, we now must note, was marked by isolation from this gorilla’s own parents, and by alienation, transit and objectification.

And like the great killer whales, a zoo gorilla, alive or dead, has lost a lifetime, missing everything that makes a free life possible: viable habitat, and interactions with the living communities they’ve co-evolved with.

To redeem the wrong done to Harambe is impossible—as it was ever since the day, 17 years ago, Harambe was born between walls.51eRDCUPvGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

What did it take for us to notice? At the Cincinnati Zoo, a little kid slipped through the fence and into the exhibit. Keepers shot the gorilla dead in the rush of panic, amidst the screams of spectators. As the zoo explained: “The Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team responded to the life-threatening situation and made the difficult decision to dispatch the gorilla (Harambe).“

A captive animal such as Harambe will always be at risk of paying the ultimate price for a safety breach, though such a scenario is the fault of captivity itself. If we think it appropriate to hold conscious beings in exhibits for ticketholders in the first place, we have already made the assessment that their lives are not as valuable as ours.

We should know better. And nowhere, save possibly in the case of orcas, is the wrong more blatant. We’ve made cultural archetypes of the dangers visited upon us when we bring large beings into exhibits. King Kong, in New York to be displayed, died falling off a building, attention focused on the screaming Fay Wray. The audience was made to sympathize with Kong—or, rather, Kong’s humanlike emotions.

Whether Harambe, if not shot, could have related to the child will be debated in the flow of critiques of the Cincinnati Zoo. But whether a being has an anthropophagic nature or not hardly matters.

We perceive other animals as risky; indeed, an element of these exhibits’ allure is the natural force of the animal contained. Regardless of their supposed virtues, zoos permit the ticket-holders to act out dominance over other beings in a staged environment.

Let the Untamed Be

As I write, the zoo’s Gorilla World page still shows a bio of Harambe, along with the bios of several remaining gorillas. They, captive and unable to safely return to their lands, should not be exhibited, but should instead be offered private refuge. No captive breeding. No public viewing or cognitive research.

One of the Cincinnati Zoo’s survivors is Mondika—named, disturbingly, after an area in the Republic of Congo that habituates western lowland gorillas as research specimens and for ecotourism—thus making a zoo-like destination out of this being’s ancestral habitat.

At a U.S.-sponsored conference, Rwanda’s minister of Trade and Industry spoke of gorillas as a “common resource” of three countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Meanwhile, we advocates discuss the matter of whether non-human apes should actually be deemed persons and assigned rights of their own. The best we can do for them today, though, is to release them from the traps our laws have constructed for them. This includes undoing regulatory facilitation of the habituations and public displays of these beings. We need to get out of our own way and our dominion-loving minds to shield them—and their habitat—from the human gaze.

For if rights would mean anything real, at their core is the simple right to be let alone, to flourish on their terms.

Here it’s worth noting an 1890 Harvard Law Review article, The Right to Privacy. Troubled by the distress caused by intrusive reporters, authors Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis proposed a new tort: the invasion of privacy.

Their aim was to shield the individual from “popular curiosity” and to respect the “inviolate personality” as “part of the more general right to the immunity of the person.” For Harambe and other primates of the other-than-human kind, there’s something to that.

And time, for gorillas and all primates, is of the essence, with around half of all communities of primates at risk of extinction spurred by human intrusions that include hunting, clear-cutting, and resource-guzzling animal agribusiness as well as tourism.

Our honest expression of responsibility for what we have done to Harambe needn’t be legally complicated, but it won’t be easy. What’s needed is a humanity capable of respecting the interests of other members of Earth’s biological community in simply being let alone, in flourishing in their habitats free from our intrusions and control. Such a paradigmatic shift will enable us to gain an authentic respect for the ethic beneath our outrage over Harambe’s death, and to grasp that we are actors within our biosphere, not spectators.

Lee Hall, a Widener University adjunct, holds an LL.M. in Environmental Law, and has authored the new book On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century. Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law

More articles by:Lee Hall


8 thoughts on “All the World’s a Stage: Thoughts on the Death of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla

  1. Animals Conscious and Sentient and If So any Form of Animal Killing for Sport (AKA hunting, esp trophy hunting, trapping) Is Serial Murdering & Hunters & Trappers Are Serial Killers. Exploitation is essentially wrong and speciesism.

    Are non human animals conscious and sentient? Can they think, feel pain, feel a range of emotions (anger, guilt, love, hate, friendly, anxiety, depression, sadness, and more)? Can they make a plan, engage in purposeful behavior, use consequential thinking in choosing actions? Are they aware of individual self in relations, the environs, their family, their needs of food, safety, shelter, belonging? Do they adapt to the environs, to living with other creatures including man? Do they teach their young and protect them and the family? Do they play? Do they evaluate and solve problems? Do they coordinate their actions? Do they mourn, grieve, show empathy? Do they communicate with their kind, and others? Some animals demonstrate all these qualities. They show signs of stress, desire for affection, attention, and belonging. They communicate with vocalizations, body language. Most approach humans with caution, even our pets, and they are stressed with insecurity about our show of affection for them. My dogs approach, sometimes with ears laid back, averting gaze, then are relieved when I reciprocate affection. Their approach is submissive. Yet, despite sentience, humans raise them for food (aka ranching), trap them for their fur, kill them as a recreational opportunity (aka hunting). State and federal wildlife agencies primarily manage (aka kill) them to “control their populations”, remove “nuisance” animals, some of which most certainly would control their own populations. So humans ranch, hunt, trap, use as source of food, use as a source of recreational killing opportunity other sentient and conscious animals. Are humans then “humane”? Humans kill with kindness? We humans justify and rationalize our treatment of the animal kingdom by perceiving and treating animals as not sentient and conscious, while perceiving ourselves as special, self-appointed special and above the rest of the animal kingdom, created in God’s image with all else created for us,.What arrogance! Stupendous narcissism! What horror! Without our tools, superior not. Man is weak without clothing and weapons and more of a parasite than useful niche in the ecology. We appoint ourselves as special and superior with our self-centered perspective on our place in the universe. The Earth and her ecology would be better off without us. That is our worth and place in the ecology.


    Animal consciousness – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia

    Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are ……/animal…/scientists…Psychology Today
    Aug 10, 2012

    After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience …

    Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have … – io9…/prominent-scientists-sign-declaration-that-animals-have-co…io9
    Aug 23, 2012 –

    Brain Researchers Acknowledge Animal Consciousness ……/animal-consciousness_…The Huffington Post
    Sep 5, 2012

  2. The only fortunate thing about Harambe’s death is that it is driving discussions about what his life should have been and whether he belonged in a zoo where he could lose his life for no fault of his own. We’re told that zoos are needed so that experts can breed small populations of endangered species to help scientists working with wildlife populations. That function of a zoo could be better carried out in a sanctuary-style setting where the animals could be observed without all the commotion of visitors and gawkers. The zoo is also considered important as a place where families can have “unique experiences and children can learn about the natural world and respect for animals.” Is that what really happens?

    I suspect that at bottom what the zoos have really become are income generators and job creators for the benefit of the people who staff them and the communities where they are located. They are “income engines” who generate 16.0 billion to the GDP.
    They have also become, as Jeff Corwin noted, baby sitters, and for the general public they end up being entertainment centers.
    As for offering a learning experience–how many kids, including a 3-year-old, care that gorillas are the largest of the great apes? How many care where their real home should be? How many care what is happening to them in that home, that they are killed by poachers and slaughtered for meat, that they are now endangered. Making animals spend their lives in an enclosure as learning tools is not an ethical decision.

    Harambe’s fate reveals that zoos cannot even guarantee animals their safety, much less quality of life. The zoo maintains that there were no breaches of the barrier of the gorilla enclosure since the zoo opened in 1978. That seems almost miraculous! Human behavior has not improved in the last 40 years, andn we have seen incidents between intrusive human beings, often drunk, mentally ill, and just plain witless, and zoo animals. A lot of people could have gotten over a 3-foot-high fence and jumped into the enclosure. A 3-year-old revealed how easy it was.

    I found the zoo’s response unsettling, to put it politely. Since I am not an expert on primate behavior, I cannot judge whether Harambe was behaving naturally or aggressively. That he could have hurt the child who propelled himself uninvited into Harambe’s home cannot be denied. However, zoo director Thane Maynard was instantaneously reassuring everyone that killing Harambe was necessary, that ensuring human life and safety are the most important functions of a zoo. So no harm must come to a human being no matter the provocation. I suspect the quick killing of the innocent Harambe had a lot to do with the hopes of avoiding liability and of assuring people that they are the ones that count, that the animals held captive in the zoo as learning tools are disposable with the pull of a trigger should any threaten harm to a person.

    Hall says that Harambe “will force the public to rethink gorillas wherever we look at them.” He also notes that “what is needed is a humanity capable of respecting the interests of other members of Earth’s biological community . . . and that such a paradigmatic shift will enable us to gain an authentic respect for the ethic beneath our outrage over Harambe’s death . . . .”

    Can we really expect a paradigm shift a la Thomas Kuhn, much as it would be desired? According to Hall even the Minister of Trade and Industry of Rwanda, home of the mountain gorilla, spoke of those animals as “common resource.” How different is that from the viewpoint of many Americans even with respect to endangered species? How different is that from the visitors who come for entertainment and the staff who earn a paycheck?

    After I wrote my comment on an article after Harambe’s death, expressing the catastrophic effects on him from a possibly inattentive mother and a seemingly clueless zoo staff, I received the following comment back when I referred to Harambe as “he” rather than “it”: Marcia, you are an animal? Hmmm. Please don’t say “us” cause I’m Created in the Image of GOD and HE certainly is no animal. In fact, GOD subjected all animals to my dominion…

    That is the mindset that allows zoos to contain their captive animals for gawkers and whose animals are only as safe as the next sorry specimen of humanity who invades their space and gets them killed. It is the same mindset that sends well-armed hunters into the hills every fall and audiences to circuses and rodeos. It is the same mindset that keeps McDonald’s and KFC mushrooming around the globe.

    I hope the outrage and energy over Harambe’s death continue and motivate people to change the primitive mindset that helped to destroy his life and so many others. Harambe deserves such a legacy. And so do Marius and Cecil and all the rest.

    • Great post. Even if it were true that “God subjected (interesting choice of word there) all animals to my dominion’. According to whom? I’d like to hope there’s a Higher Being because if not, and mankind is all there is, it’s a pretty disappointing prospect. And did God say you have to mistreat, abuse, imprison, and kill his creations? Doubtful. I guess I am becoming more and more agnostic every day; because there are so many inconsistencies and self-serving beliefs with Christianity that it is becoming more and more mythological stories to me.

      When the furor is over, people will go back to doing what they always do – taking care of their own interests. There will be a few who will try to make things better for other creatures on this planet, as there always are – but not much will change. It hasn’t in centuries, and it is wishful thinking to think that suddenly this human juggernaut is going to stop or reverse its course. I’ll use it there. Since all or the majority of creatures on this planet are male or female, it’s only right to call them he or she. If we want to objectify them so that it makes it easy to justify our treatment of them, then we call them ‘it’.

      I’d like to turn in my human race card after events like this, I truly do.

      • When I say “we” and “you” etc, I’m using it in the collective sense.

        It’s taken me almost my entire life to disengage myself from the messages we have hammered into our brains almost from birth about religion, our relationship to other creatures, meat eating, etc. It’s basically mostly falsehoods.


    There was another article praising the ‘dangerous animal swat team’ of the Cincinnati zoo. The more I read, the more I see that in order to make the zoo entertaining and as open as possible for human enjoyment, it’s accepted that the animals will be sacrificed. The animals’ safety is very precarious. The article states that weapons are stashed throughout the zoo in case of emergency, even tho emergencies are rare. What an environment! 😦

    When animals are killed because of humans in this case if there were no zoos, or at the very least something more that a flimsy barrier separating them from the public, the kid wouldn’t have been in danger – I tend to have more empathy for the animals. The zoo will carry on as usual (and is quite anxious to get this behind them), the kid and his mother will recover. That ridiculous fence upgrade needs to be publicized and people, if they really care about the animals imprisoned in zoos and not just their own experience there, should demand something better.

    When I was growing up, my mother was all over us kids for everything – ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, what out for your sister, etc. etc. but then we didn’t live in the cell phone era.

    • The Book of Genesis was written in approximately 1440 B.C., and contains the statement about dominion. It’s interesting how convenient it is that so many people today that do not follow the real moral injunctions of The Bible can cherry pick the passages that encourage the behaviors they want to engage in.

      What happened to Harambe and what happens to millions of animals every day is a manifestations of H. sapiens as cosmic bully, the one who can terrorize and torture at will because he can find the excuses in religion, philosophy and law. The one who can claim to be superior to all other animals and then act more savagely than any of them.

      The sad fact for the Hamabe’s and Cecil’s and Marius’s of the world, as well billions of nameless victims, is that what people really have is the control, the means, and the desire to carry out their massacres.

      • Genesis 1:28 could easily be interpreted as the mission statement for zoos: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living animal that moveth upon the earth.”

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