The only thing more upsetting than Harambe the gorilla’s death was the reality of his life

Surely we can begin to agree that animals which share 98 per cent of our DNA should not be kept as entertainment for us to gawk at in a zoo

Yet again, captivity has taken an animal’s life. The latest victim: a 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe, who was gunned down after a young boy managed to crawl through a fence before falling into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The incident (which could have been prevented by surrounding the enclosure with a secondary barrier) has generated a great deal of debate online, some extreme – one tweet said, “[I]f you have to shoot – aim for the least endangered one,” while an Express columnist took the view that “zoo staff did what you might think all people would want: they put the human life first”. But arguing over whose life is more valuable misses the point. What we should be asking is why intelligent, self-aware animals are still being displayed as living exhibits for humans to gawk at.

Harambe and other animals serving life sentences in zoos are leading lives of quiet desperation. They are denied the most basic freedoms, including being able to choose where to roam, when and what to eat, and whom to socialise with. It’s no wonder that these magnificent animals frequently exhibit signs of extreme depression and related psychological conditions, such as pacing, rocking and eating their own vomit, which is unheard of in their wild counterparts, as they struggle with the confines of their captivity. They’re also prone to cardiac disease: in 2011, the Smithsonian Institution revealed that 30 of its gorillas were on heart medication.


Cincinnati zoo gorilla shot dead as boy falls into enclosure

Zoos try to justify their existence in the name of “conservation”, but warehousing animals in these facilities does nothing to help protect endangered animals in the wild. In fact, some say doing so actually harms wild populations because it diverts much-needed funds away from the protection of animals in their natural habitats.

After all, capturing (yes, some zoos still snatch animals out of their natural habitats), transporting and maintaining non-human animals for the professed purpose of “conserving” them is enormously expensive. It costs about 50 times as much to keep one African elephant in a zoo as it would to safeguard sufficient natural habitat to sustain that elephant and countless others.

When, in 2007, the Zoological Society of London spent £5.3m on a new gorilla enclosure, Ian Redmond, the chief consultant to the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership, said: “£5m for three gorillas [seems a huge amount] when national parks are seeing [three gorillas] killed every day for want of some Land Rovers, trained men and anti-poaching patrols. It must be very frustrating for the warden of a national park to see”. Clearly, the same amount of money a zoo spends on buying expensive animals could benefit so many more of the same animals living in the wild. Our need for entertainment is expensive, unnecessary and without discernible benefit, then, to the animals involved.

While zoos spend millions on keeping animals in captivity, wild animals continue to experience habitat destruction and poaching. Virtually none of the captive-bred species that do face extinction in the wild – including gorillas, elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers, chimpanzees and pandas – will ever be released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations. The truth is that most zoos have no contact of any kind with reintroduction programmes.

Perhaps the only thing more tragic than Harambe’s death was his life. While the debate about whether Cincinnati Zoo should have killed him or not rages on, surely we can all agree that animals deserve better than a life sentence in a zoo.



6 thoughts on “The only thing more upsetting than Harambe the gorilla’s death was the reality of his life

  1. Harambe the gorilla was shot to prevent harm to a child that had climbed through barriers and fallen into the gorilla enclosure. The gorilla was shot when he could have been tranquilized or lured away. The mother should have better watched the child. The zoo should have better barriers, brat proof and toddler proof. The incident has opened up a discourse on zoos and their functions, the positives and negatives. The incident and others have opened an elevated and broader discourse on speciesism and how the human animal treats other animals.

    Zoos serve some good purposes, no doubt: preserving endangered species, providing observation and creating interest by the public, providing refuge for orphaned and injured animals. Zoos have also done terrible things: snatching animals from a wild existence, mistreating animals in their carrier, only providing a stark prison existence not on any way resembling the wild. Zoos obviously could much improve and their roles elevated.

    The incident also brings up speciesism and man’s self importance. We elevate ourselves way beyond what we deserve, above all other sentient species. Man kills 27 million animals daily for food. 90 billion sea animals a year, billions of farm animals annually. Man pollutes the environment, now to a critical stage. We overfish the oceans, cut down the forests for animal farming (aka ranching), are driving extinction of more and more species. There are too many of us, over 7 billion and multiplying. It is probably not sustainable. Humans are superstitious, dark ages religious, ignorant, genocidal of our own species. Our unique claim to specialness is tool making and technology, which has led to our badness. Our specialness is self-appointed, and largely based on our religions which we created and makes us the center of the universe. Maybe we are more of a disease, a departure from health of the planet and the animal kingdom. Harambe’s death, and Cecil the lion’s death may help elevate the discussion of how we treat the planet and other sentient animals. We are just animals ourselves.

    • Absolutely! I think I read every post on the Internet about Harambe, and while there were some really good and thoughtful ones like yours and the others here, there were some that diminished Harambe’s life and minimized his death by reminding readers that he was an animal and that only humans mattered because they had souls and were made in the image of God. My comments to those seemed to send them into positive spasms of indignation. Obviously they won’t change their indoctrinated minds, but the number of comments, including the number of positive ones indicate that we are undergoing a cultural shift in our attitudes towards animals and our treatment of them.

      We have a long way to go, but we have a start. Harambe (and Cecil and Marius and the others) will be driving that change.

  2. Many people are outraged and saddened by Harambe’s death and are calling for an end to zoos.

    However, life in the wild is not necessarily happy or safe either. For one thing, there isn’t a lot of wildness left in wilderness anymore. Human encroachment is reducing habitat, blocking corridors of wide-ranging species, and reducing their food sources. Many areas are open to hunting and trapping and have continuous problems with poaching. Lands are also open to ecotourism and recreation that further reduce natural habitat and allow human/animal confrontations that usually end badly for the animals.

    Aside from the human interventions, animals in the wild are subject to death from diseases and parasites, predation, and intra- and extra-species violence. All of those may be natural, but that probably does not make much difference to the animals who are suffering and dying as a result.

    Thus, while life in the wild may be preferable to life in the zoo, it has its own painful dangers and deaths.

    No one knows how Harambe would have fared in the wild, how long he would have lived, and if his death would have been “natural” or if he would have been killed by human beings there too. We can only regret what did happen and wish.

  3. Harambe, being born and raised in captivity, would not have been a candidate for release into the wild, I don’t think. A sanctuary would have been the place for him. The thing about the wild though is that they live how they were meant to. Even with all it’s inherent dangers, it is infinitely preferable to being kept in confinement by humans who think they know everything about what an animal needs, and outright abuse and harm them. A zoo’s primary reason for existence is to make money by providing entertainment and appealing to the human need to gawk at and elevate themselves. We used to do it to other humans in freak shows; so there is hope that someday in the distant future we’ll deign to treat other living things with the respect they deserve.

    There is no life without risk, but humans present the worst risk to the life of animals. Left to their own, animals would adjust their population numbers to account for loss. But the outrageously huge human population and all our needs prevent that. Out effects on the environment are magnified by exponential degree more than when we were hunter/gatherers, with our own risks to ourselves. Just by keeping an animal in confinement against its will is abuse. There’s a video going around of what looks like an adult woman encouraging a tiger to slam himself against the glass enclosure so she can get a photo sitting there. Basically teasing him. Whatever grand illusions humans have about themselves all come crashing down under scrutiny. It’s hard to believe that people have no feelings or concern for anyone but themselves, and if I want to be generous, for their own kind only. But even then, I don’t know – I watched an interview with a Wisconsin Senator or Congressman about the shooting in Orlando – and all he could talk about was protecting constitutional rights! I think people have a constitutional right to be safe. We are a strange species.

    • Agreed. Being in a zoo is equivalent to being in a freak show. Many visitors to zoos and national parks behave so badly so have to see it to believe it. Most don’t seem to have any real appreciation for the animals or their lives. They become props for selfies or are taunted to get a reaction for a photo.

      Some of the better sanctuaries are setting age limits for kids at 8 years or so, and that should help. There is a great Sanctuary in Colorado, the Wild Animal Sanctuary that raised it’s admission fee to $50 per person, hoping to get visitors that were serious about the animals. Earlier visitors were stealing from the sanctuary store, throwing junk all over, and putting rocks in the restroom toilets. Guess that says who should be in the zoos.

      Trouble with the wild is the human population. That in Rwanda has surpassed the carrying capacity of the land, so everything possible is being squeezed out to feed and support people. Bad for gorillas and other animals.

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