In Honor of Harambe: Don’t Be an Ass

Those of you who know me may know I have a particular affinity for gorillas. They are beautiful, and they are fascinating, and their relationship with humans is fascinating. I believe studying the great apes teaches us more about ourselves, our origins, and what it means to be human.

So, yes, I am grieving about the death of Harambe, the 17 year old silverback from the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed over the weekend when a small child got into his enclosure.  What I am not doing is joining the lynch mob that is blaming the zoo.  What I am not doing is joining the even bigger lynch mob who is blaming the child’s mother.

Human brains do not like to grapple with accidents.  We like things to have reasons.  When tragedy strikes, we like for it to be someone’s fault because as long as someone somewhere was doing the wrong thing, an accident like that could not happen to us or our children as long as we do the right thing.

I’ve read quite a bit of misinformation out there about Harambe and what happened, and I’d like to weigh in.  Both because I am appalled at the human behavior that has spouted such vitriol about the other humans involved, and also because the gorillas cannot speak for themselves.


  • Gorillas are gentle giants.

False.  Gorillas are dangerous wild animals.  Harambe was 450 pounds of gorilla muscle which is not, by the way, like human muscle, but 10 times stronger.  Zoos classify gorillas in the category of the most dangerous animals.  Zookeepers, as a matter of protocol, do not enter into enclosures with gorillas and hand them bananas and discuss Donald Trump.  Not ever.  While it is true that gorillas are not hunters, they are perfectly capable of killing each other and other animals in the wild.

  • The Zoo should have tranquilized Harambe instead of shooting him.

I disagree.  A tranq dart on a 450 pound gorilla on an adrenaline rush does not work immediately the way a rifle shot does.  I’ve read it can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes to kick in. Meanwhile, you have just shot an already agitated gorilla in the ass, and he will probably not react by calmly asking the child to remove the dart.  Even 5 minutes would have been plenty of time for Harambe to injure or kill this child.  Zoo officials had been trained especially for this very situation, and they made the right call.

  • The child fell into the enclosure

False.  The child climbed into the enclosure.  Now at 4 years old, children do not always make the best decisions.  My point in bringing this up is not to lay blame on the child, who wanted very much to swim with the gorillas.  Me, too, kid.  But it’s an important distinction because the enclosure was specifically designed to prevent falls from happening, and it did its job.  This tragedy was not caused by a momentary lack of balance or clumsiness or leaning too far forward to get a better look at the animals.

  • The Zoo is responsible for not building a better enclosure

Well maybe.  Not only should an enclosure be designed to prevent an accidental fall, but it should be designed to prevent an intentional breach by a 4 year old as well.  In the latter endeavor, the zoo clearly failed.  This accident automatically triggered an investigation by the American Zoological Association which accredited the Cincinnati Zoo.  This is only appropriate after a breach, but I seriously doubt the zoo will be found negligent.  Just because one particularly bright and inquisitive child breached the enclosure, that does not mean that the Zoo is criminally negligent.  The law requires that an outcome should have been anticipated for that charge to stick, and I don’t think that’s the case here, although an investigation into the matter is appropriate.

  • It is the mother’s fault for not watching her kid.

I disagree.  Witnesses and the mother herself agree that she was momentarily distracted when her child slipped through the bushes and tumbled into the moat. I don’t know if those animal lovers who are screaming for the Mom’s eternal punishment have never met children or what, but this type of distraction, which was described as lasting less than a minute, happens to every parent, every day. If you are a parent, and you are sure this would never happen to you, you have a stupid child who just sits there and waits for your full attention to return. Children wander.  They climb.  They want to pet the gorilla. This woman was not on the other side of the city sipping margaritas; she was standing right there.  You might want to believe you are a better parent, and this would never happen to you, but that does not make it so.  And hounding this poor woman, who is now being investigated by authorities, and saying she should have been shot instead of the gorilla does not in any way prove you are a better parent.  It rather demonstrates you are a shitty human, actually.

  • Zoos are horrible places and all animals should be free and Zoos should be shut down.

I disagree. But only barely.  I think it’s a valid argument that this tragedy is an inevitable outcome of having zoos.  And there are some especially shitty zoos out there that should absolutely be shut down, but accredited zoos are held to pretty high standards.  It is amazing to me the improvements in animal habitats that have happened in my lifetime.  And this is especially true for ape habitats. I feel personally enriched because I have been privileged to see gorillas up close.  It encouraged me to study primatology in college, and it sparked my interest in conservation.  I also have to point out that zoos have a uniquely important role to play in captive breeding programs that may be the best chance for lowland gorilla survival.

I am in mourning for Harambe.  In his honor, I choose to blame no one for the horrific accident that led to his death.  Instead of publicly blaming strangers I have not met facing decisions I do not have to make, I am going to adopt a gorilla through the World Wildlife Foundation.  I hope you will consider doing the same.