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Soul-Searching After Harambe the Gorilla’s Death

Cincinnati Zoo Tragedy Inspires Thoughts About Santa Barbara Zoo and Others


Over Memorial Day weekend, a gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo was shot and killed in order to rescue a child who had slipped into its enclosure. Harambe’s death has led to many debates about how the boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, why the gorilla had to be killed, and the confinement of wild animals in general.

Hundreds of people on social media were quick to point the finger at the mother of the small child who fell into Harambe’s enclosure. Kimberley Ann Perkins O’Connor, who filmed the encounter, said she thinks the boy’s mother was distracted for more than a split second, long enough to give him time to find his way into the habitat. O’Connor said that the barrier to the gorilla enclosure wasn’t easily penetrated and that it would take some effort. “Unfortunately, it was a bad situation where a 3-year-old didn’t have the attention of his mother for seconds,” she said. “I don’t think it was as easy as standing up and falling in. He actually had to climb under something, through some bushes, and then into the moat.”

More than 320,000 people signed an online petition seeking “Justice for Harambe.” After an investigation, an Ohio prosecutor stated this past Monday that the mom would not face charges. “By all accounts, this mother did not act in any way where she presented this child to some harm,” Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said. “She had three other kids with her and turned her back. … And if anyone doesn’t believe a 3-year-old can scamper off very quickly, they’ve never had kids.”

Now the USDA is looking into the safety of the zoo’s exhibit and animal rights groups are calling for the zoo to get slapped with a fine. The zoo defended its safety barriers, saying this is the first time its gorilla habitat has experienced a breach since the exhibit opened in 1978. The exhibit is inspected regularly by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the United States Department of Agriculture, and adheres to safety guidelines, according to the zoo. Though, in light of what happened, Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, says they have modified the outer pubic barrier to make entry even more difficult.

The next issue that has been debated over Harambe’s death is the decision to use lethal force over a tranquilizer. The zoo said in a statement that a tranquilizer would have taken several minutes to take effect, which could prolong the risk. In addition, the dart could have agitated the gorilla, causing a violent reaction. And even though most experts say it appeared Harambe was protecting the child, the fact is that Harambe is a 450-pound wild animal. If he wanted to, he could have instantly crushed the boy, even if accidentally.

Last, but certainly not least, the death of Harambe has reignited the debate about whether or not wild animals should be kept in zoos. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), they should not. “Even under the ‘best’ circumstances, captivity is never acceptable for gorillas or other primates, and in cases like this, it’s even deadly,” PETA said in a statement. “This tragedy is exactly why PETA urges families to stay away from any facility that displays animals as sideshows for humans to gawk at.”

It is my opinion that some zoos teach people that it is acceptable to keep animals captive for our entertainment. In some zoos, animals live in cramped areas where they are bored, lonely, and far from their natural habitats.

Zoos claim to educate people and preserve species but many zoos often fall short of this. Some enclosures are a fraction of the size of the animal’s natural habitat and the labels provide little more information than the species’ name, diet and natural range. The animals’ normal behavior is seldom witnessed because their natural needs are not always met. The many animals that live in large herds or family groups are often kept alone, or at most, in pairs. Hunting and mating behaviors are virtually eliminated by regulated feeding and breeding regimens. The animals are closely confined, lack privacy, and often times have little opportunity for physical exercise, resulting in abnormal behavior.

There are zoos that do their best to encompass an animal’s entire habitat. Visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo, one may come to the conclusion that the animals are better off than in the wild where they face predators and disease. But not all zoos look like the Santa Barbara Zoo. I’ve visited zoos in other parts of the country and in developing nations where the animals could barely walk around due to the confines of their cages.

Before I had kids, I wouldn’t visit zoos very often. Now that I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old, things have changed. My kids love going the Santa Barbara Zoo, where they have both come to appreciate insects and birds and other animals. However, I do have a hard time seeing the gorilla enclosure. I feel these animals are well aware of their captive environment and it saddens me to see the look on their faces. My husband, who isn’t as much of an animal lover as I am, feels the same way. So this is one exhibit we avoid.

In the case of Harambe the gorilla, the Cincinnati Zoo was keeping him as part of their captive breeding and conservation program. Western lowland gorillas are threatened by habitat destruction, disease, and poachers, with fewer than 175,000 left in the wild in Africa, according to the zoo. The zoo described Harambe as an intelligent and curious animal who was on his way to becoming a group leader. Tragically, only one day after celebrating his 17th birthday, Harambe is no longer with us.



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