This week, the news and social media have been saturated with the story of Harambe, the 17-year old gorilla who was shot to death on May 28, 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo after a little boy climbed, and then fell, into Harambe’s enclosure. I’ve been reading a lot of articles on it, as I’m sure many of you have, and still trying to process it in my own mind. Like Cecil the Lion who was killed last year, this animal’s death has created a lot of discussion, speculation, and sadly, revealed a lot of ugly hatred and public shaming.
First off let me state: I reject parent/child shaming. It’s toxic, at best misguided, and extremely unhelpful. It’s especially disturbing when it comes from people who weren’t there to witness what happened and even if they were, no parent is expecting to find their child in a gorilla enclosure on a day at the zoo – there is no way of knowing what any of us would do or how we would we react in that same situation. Public displays meant to humiliate are a grotesque side to humans that the world does not need. It also feeds into this “blame the mother/woman” trend that repulses me to no end. Enough.
The unfortunate ugliness aside, one of the most reasoned and fair articles I read on the situation was by Ian Redmond, a field biologist and conservationist who has worked with great apes and elephants for four decades. (By far the worst one was from Toronto’s own Christie Blatchford and I spent two hours yesterday crafting a response. As I wrote in my letter to her, “It was insulting and petty on a level usually reserved for the comments section of YouTube.”)
Redmond, in the piece he wrote for The Guardian, did not assume to offer the perfect solution or lay blame solely on the shoulders of one particular party. Rather, based on his knowledge and experience with great apes and working with them in their natural habitat versus how they might respond differently in captivity, offered several suggestions as to what could possibly have been done differently and asked the question: “Will zoo professionals amend their emergency protocols to try non-lethal methods first?” Another writer, for Psychology Today, raised some equally valid points: “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.” He added (rather perfectly I thought): “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.”
I’m not a fan of zoos and choose not to support them but I agree with this – these questions need to be asked. This was a traumatic event for many involved, including other zoo employees who are also grieving the loss of Harambe. While the zoo has stood by its decision to shoot-to-kill in order to (debatably) save the boy, I hope the zoo’s director, Thane Maynard, rethinks his position stated at a press conference this past Monday: “Looking back,” he said, “We would make the same decision.” From a PR perspective, I understand why they are standing by their actions in this particular scenario. But there’s no reason to declare that you would do the same thing again. There would be no harm or shame in trying to come up with an emergency preparedness plan and retraining staff to deal with worst-case scenarios. Even if the situation ended up with the same result, wouldn’t knowing every other attempt was exhausted prior to using lethal force?
But this is part of the problem – how we are raised to view animals in the first place. Zoos, as much as the individual caretakers or guests may truly appreciate or love these animals, exist to make money. Animals are born, bred and raised in captivity for the entertainment of humans. Zoos can sink money into conservation programs and declare that by keeping the animals there they are protecting them but at the end of the day, these animals are commodities. And never is that more evident than when they go from being a valuable attraction to a disposable threat in a mere 10 minutes.
Some might see this as integrity on the part of the zoo: they were willing to destroy one of their animals to save a human. I’m sure some see them as heroes. But that’s only one way to look at it. There are more sides to consider and what I hope, in unison with those voicing the same concern, is that zoos be willing to bring those other sides into the conversation. I’ve touched on this before: if we are the ones placing animals in these precarious situations in the first place (and making money from them in the process), we at least owe it to them to actively find ways that do not add to their suffering, or make their already freedom-less lives even more limiting. What I ask is that the narrative stop being so one-sided when it comes to valuing an animal’s life; that the narrative include both human and animal consideration. Because Harambe deserved to be spared too.
We will never know how Harambe would have ultimately responded to the fallen boy he found suddenly staring up at him from the moat and I’m in no way saying the boy wasn’t in any danger. But we will never know for sure. Ever. Is this what zoos want to be teaching the public about animals? Pay to respect and gawk at them from behind an enclosure but fear and kill them when we make a mistake that threatens both them and us? What is the lesson here? Please tell me we will take something away from this other than, “Looking back, we would make the same decision.”