I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I saw the headline, "Gorilla Killed at Cincinnati Zoo After Child Climbs in Enclosure". My heart sank--I couldn't get myself to click on the article knowing that the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach would boil over into anger and disgust.
After settling my emotions, I finally read one of the articles and all I kept thinking about was the persistent problem with zoos: wildlife in captivity, exploitation and people's lack of common sense, sensitivity and understanding. A lot of animal lovers are outraged by the mother of the child whose carelessness led to the child getting into the gorilla enclosure. However, the real issue here is the existence of zoos, which function first and foremost as a business, ultimately caring more about profit than safety and their animals.
With the worldwide fury that has accompanied Saturday's devastating news, Harambe the critically endangered Western lowland silverback gorilla (who celebrated his 17th birthday a day before he was killed) has become the face of the underlying problem with zoos … just as Cecil the beloved lion became the face of the cruel and senseless "sport" of trophy hunting. I get the sense that Harambe’s death is the tipping point, and that everything that is wrong with zoos will drive their demise. That’s my hope, at least, especially since the final moments of Harambe's life were captured on video for all the world to see, and the deeper issues of wildlife in captivity are in the global spotlight.
Here are reasons for why the zoo is to blame for Harambe’s death:
#1 - Wildlife Become Victims for Acting As They Are ... Wild
While this issue isn't limited to wildlife in captivity, it’s worse when it befalls wild animals in zoos because they didn’t choose to be there. Story after story, study after study, show that animals in captivity are prone to neurotic, aggressive and sometimes unpredictable behavior due to the abnormal conditions in which they’re forced to live--especially for those born in the wild and ruthlessly taken from their home and families and held captive. Why is it that wild animals are punished for acting the only way they know how, or the only way they know how to cope, when the blame should rest solely on the animals’ captors … the zoos?
#2 - Zoos Are Ill-Equipped for Emergencies
How is it that the Cincinnati Zoo, or any zoo for that matter, can take in animals even when they aren't prepared for worst-case scenarios, like a child falling into an enclosure? It’s not like that situation is hard to imagine, as it has happened at other zoos. Shouldn't it be the zoo's responsibility to ensure that they have the proper tranquilizers for emergency situations such as the case with Harambe, without having to kill the animal? And if they don't have a tranquilizer that could quickly sedate a wild animal with one shot, then they shouldn't have the animal to begin with--especially not in an enclosure that is accessible to the public. Doing so means that they simply put profit over safety, and aren't really about conservation and educating people about wildlife. It just reinforces the fact that zoos treat wildlife as spectacles for people to gawk at and sometimes even harass for their selfish entertainment.
Also, the fact that a 4-year-old boy could easily climb into a gorilla enclosure means that the barrier designed to protect animals and the public from each other was obviously flawed. What really annoys me is the statement made by Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, who said that while the barrier is over 3 feet high, "anyone" can climb it if he or she "want[s] to.” Uh, did he just admit that the barrier isn’t people-proof, let alone childproof? Did he just admit that their security system is flawed? If he knew that anyone could access the enclosure, then why have the enclosure open to visitors?
And another thing, knowing that there was a possibility of someone getting into the enclosure, and the commotion that would ensue from onlookers, means that the zoo didn’t think about what would happen in that scenario. If they had, they would have known that the panic and screams from the crowds would only alarm and agitate the gorillas (or any wild animal in captivity). Once again, they FAILED to have any foresight.
#3 - Zookeepers Should Know How to Read Animals
I know I'll get criticism for this when I wasn't even at the zoo, nor do I know what it's like to be a zookeeper, but I can't help but think that things would have turned out differently if the zookeepers were better trained on the behaviors and signs that animals exhibit in various situations like Saturday’s incident. Maybe they would have realized that what was seen as violence and aggression was actually a display of protection.
It just doesn’t seem to require expert knowledge to see that the gorilla at one point even appeared to prop the little boy up and hold his hand. As many people have commented, if Harambe really wanted the child dead, he could’ve killed him in seconds with one blow. And why did the boy himself seem so calm, even after it appeared that he was roughly dragged through the water? Surely he must have sensed that he was going to be OK.
Frans De Waal, a leading primatologist, said that contrary to popular belief, gorillas are not predators like lions and tigers. Instead, “gorillas are peaceful vegetarians” who would opt for a “juicy piece of fruit over a piece of meat any time of the day.” He went on to say that “The one thing that reliably makes a gorilla male mad is another male who enters his territory or gets too close to his females and young.” Clearly, the child posed no threat and gave Harambe no reason to attack.
You can watch footage of the incident here with commentary by ape expert, Dr. Emily Bethell, who explained that Harambe’s body language showed that he was NOT threatening the child.
Also, consider the handful of instances in which a child fell into a gorilla enclosure, such as at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in 1996 when a female gorilla carried a 3-year-old boy to the door where rescuers waited (there were six gorillas in that enclosure at the time). There was also a similar incident in 1986 at UK’s Jersey Zoo in which a 5-year-old boy fell into an enclosure and Jambo the gorilla watched over the boy, protecting him against other gorillas in the exhibit. Jambo was even seen stroking the child’s back as he lay unconscious. That happened 30 years ago, a similar accident and protective response from both gorillas, except this time the outcome was entirely different with Harambe dead--even after exhibiting concern for the child.
Zoos Are for People and Profit, Not Animals or Conservation
What happened at the Cincinnati Zoo goes to show that zoos really don’t have the animals’ best interests at heart. If they were really concerned about wildlife conservation, then they would have come up with specific protocols for worst-case scenarios, and ensured that there were zero chances of the public accessing an animal enclosure. So while the parents’ negligence is also to blame, the real issue lies with the existence of zoos.
There is nothing educational about seeing wild animals lonely, miserable, and suffering physically and mentally in an artificial setting, away from their families and their natural environment that would have allowed them to forage, roam and do what it is they do: be wild and free. Many will argue that these animals would be hunted to death if they weren’t living in zoos, but put yourself in the animals’ shoes (or paws, fins, etc.): Would you prefer to be imprisoned for the rest of your life just to keep yourself alive, or would you prefer to be free, even if it might mean losing your life? Happiness comes with freedom, not with safety in a concrete prison.
And the fact that majority of zoos sell their “surplus” animals (older animals who no longer attract crowds) to canned hunting farms, research labs and circuses, zoos should be exposed for what they really are: businesses under the guise of conservation and education. Click here to read an article by animal activist, Gary Yourofsky, on what is wrong with zoos.
What You Can Do to Help Animals in Captivity
If you truly love animals, visit or volunteer at an accredited wildlife sanctuary or wildlife rehabilitation center to observe them in a more natural environment. There, the animals have been rescued from private owners and places like zoos and roadside zoos, and they make animals’ lives, well-being and conservation their top priority.
Don’t visit zoos, and discourage people you know from doing so. Educate people about the ugly reality of zoos by sharing stories and information such as this. You can also create or sign and share petitions urging zoos, circuses, marine parks and other places that hold wildlife in captivity to send their animals to accredited sanctuaries.
Just as we turned outrage into action by getting major airlines to ban shipments of hunting trophies after Cecil the Lion’s death, we can do the same for Harambe by calling on zoos to change their policies and release their animals to real sanctuaries. We cannot let Harambe’s death be in vein.
I also hope that you will sign and share the following petitions:
A petition to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection to fine the zoo, develop zoos’ humane protocols protecting people and animals, and call for resignation of Cincinnati Zoo Director