On Saturday, May 28, a three-year old boy fell into the moat of the gorilla exhibit at the famed Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, resulting in a tragedy that has sparked intense passion and finger-pointing but few answers as to what should be done.
After the child fell into the exhibit, a 400-pound 17-year old gorilla named Harambe investigated and engaged with the boy. Whether or not the gorilla was attempting to protect or harshly play with the child – a distinction around which much online debate has emerged – the giant primate did drag the boy forcefully, leading to the Zoo’s decision to kill the gorilla before any serious harm could be done.
Authorities deemed a non-lethal approach, such as using a tranquilizer, too risky as the time that the desired effect would take would allow the agitated Harambe to lash out. The celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna is one of many industry professionals who have come out in support of the Cincinnati Zoo’s actions.
Other conservation experts contend that there were alternatives, as Ian Redmond of the UK-based Gorilla Organisation explained to The Guardian:
Was a lethal shot the only option? No, I don’t think so. Were other options tried? You could have offered the gorilla more fruit than he could ever normally imagine in one sitting and then the boy would have become less interesting to him. It seemed like no one was prepared to go into the enclosure.
The one thing that people can seem to agree on it that someone is to blame – the big question is who.
Many online commentators were quick to denounce the child’s mother, calling her egregiously neglectful. Witnesses on the scene have claimed that moments before the child fell into the exhibit they overheard him comment to his mother that he wanted to enter the moat.
This anecdotal evidence has thrown fuel on the fire of outrage engulfing the internet. One change.org petition called “Justice for Harambe” has already received nearly 500,000 signatures and goes as far as to call for authorities to investigate the family’s home life, as well as for the mother to be held accountable – whatever exactly that means.
Other commentators, including Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon, have derided the simplistic blame levied against the boy’s family, remarking that “all the internet outrage in the world won’t bring Harambe back, or make a hard decision a simple one.”
Whether a response to the public’s outcry or the result of carefully considered facts, Cincinnati police announced on Tuesday that they would investigate the boy’s family and not the safety protocols of the zoo.
While the ease with which the child was able to enter to the enclosure does ring some alarms over zoo security, the fact remains that this is a first for the nearly 150-year old zoo. At the end of the day, zoos pose inherent issues when bringing human spectators face-to-face with wildlife in tight spaces.
Perhaps a better channel for people’s passion is to do something proactive rather then chastise and attack a Cincinnati-area family, no matter how cathartic that may be. There are a number of excellent conservation nonprofits, such as those listed below, that could benefit from the support of those eager to keep endangered species – including silver back gorillas like Harambe – alive for generations to come.
The Nature Conservancy
World Wildlife Fund
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Sierra Club