Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What can we learn from Harambe's death?

Images of Harambe from the Gladys Porter Zoo 

Over the past few days, several people have asked me for my opinion on Harambe's death. Was his behavior aggressive? How much of a danger did he pose to little Isaiah? Could they have rescued Isaiah without shooting Harambe? Is it cruel and/or dangerous to keep apes in zoos?*

I've waited to respond to these questions in detail, because my full response is longer than I want to devote a Facebook comment, and I wanted some time to reflect. My initial response, like many, was to blame the parents for being inattentive, and to question if the zoo staff could have tried harder to find an alternate way to safely retrieve Isaiah. 

On reflection, I think it's a mistake to blame either the parents OR zoo staff. Yes, the parents should have kept a closer eye on their child. But almost every parent has had a moment when their kid slipped away. And the amount of hatred and vitriol directed specifically at the mother--not the father, who was also present--is disturbing (see Barbara King's NPR column for some perspective on this). I suspect that the harsh criticism and public shaming of the mother is partially rooted in both sexism and racism.

Some blame the zoo for not designing a secure, child-proof enclosure, but I also think that this is a bit unfair. Yes, every zoo enclosure SHOULD keep animals safely in, and human visitors safely out. But it passed previous inspections, and has been safe from human intrusion for decades. Unfortunately, no exhibit is completely human- or animal-proof, and often we don't recognize the flaws in barriers UNTIL a wily human or animal finds it. 

As much as I wish that the zoo staff could have found a way to safely retrieve Isaiah without harming Harambe, I know they followed their protocol and made a decision that prioritized human safety. I don't think that human lives are intrinsically more valuable than gorilla lives. Both are important and meaningful to me. But for obvious ethical and legal reasons, zoos are obligated to prioritize the safety of humans above the lives of the animals. Zoos have trained response teams whose job is to evaluate situations in which an animal is endangering humans, and make these split-second decisions. The keepers tried calling in the gorillas--the females in the group went in, but Harambe did not. Tranquilizers are almost never a viable option in these situations, because they will likely result in a more agitated animal who could behave unpredictably.  

I've seen a lot of different interpretations of Harambe's behavior from primatologists I respect--some state that Harambe's actions were aggressive display behavior, others interpret it as protective or playful behavior (I recommend reading/listening/viewing the perspectives from Frans de Waal, Craig Stanford, Scott Suarez, Barbara King, Ian Redmond, and Amy Parish). From the video clips I've seen, I can see both--Harambe stands protectively over Isaiah, and seems to be holding his hand and shielding his body at a couple points. But at other points he drags Isaiah around, and that looks like a display. It's possibly he was displaying, it's possibly he was dragging Isaiah around to protect him--but either way, human children are fragile, and Isaiah's life was in danger. I think it's possible that keeper staff might have been able to eventually calm and distract Harambe--but waiting to do so meant risking greater harm to Isaiah.

Can we learn from this?

Unfortunately, neither hindsight nor assigning blame will bring Harambe back. So instead, I think it's more productive to think about ways we can learn from it, and if there's anything positive that can come from it. I do find it encouraging that so many people care about Harambe, and hope this can be a learning opportunity for the public.

1. When visiting zoos we need to be mindful and respectful of the animals.

One thing that is striking in the video of Harambe and Isaiah is that it's clear the visitor noise and commotion is agitating Harambe, and contributing to the escalation of his display behavior. While, hopefully, none of us will be in this situation in the future, I've seen this play out in much more subtle ways while observing zoo animals. When zoo visitors see aggression, displays, or agitated animals, they react loudly. Sometimes particularly obnoxious humans will  elicit or exacerbate the situate by banging on exhibit glass, or making threatening motions and gestures. Many primates are threatened by intense staring (which is often perceived as a challenge), open-mouthed facial expressions (which is a threat behavior), and large, expansive gestures (which look like displays). Try to avoid making these sort of unintentional threat behaviors. If your kids are doing so, take them away from the exhibit and have them run off their energy at one of the zoo playgrounds instead. 

2. Keep a close eye on your children at the zoo, and read and obey posted signs.

Obviously no one intends to lose their kid, but often I have seen people keep less than a watchful eye on their kids at the zoo. Additionally, a lot of adults disregard signs that are posted for the sake of both the animals well-being and human safety. One summer when I was observing rhino behavior for a zoo welfare project, I saw some of the interesting reactions people had when thye read a sign that said that the rhino may spray urine. Some read the sign and immediately avoided the whole area. Others laughed and moved in closer--even when the rhino was backing up and lifting his tail (a sure sign that spraying was about to occur). 

3. If you care of the lives of gorillas, contribute to conservation efforts. 

All gorillas species and subspecies are endangered or critically endangered in the wild (see the IUCN red list). Their major threats are humans poaching (primarily for bushmeat, but babies often end up in the pet trade), Ebola, mining, and logging. Both hunting and disease transmission are facilitated by logging. Logging concessions establish roads and logging camps, which increase contact with humans, as well as provide infrastructure to bring bushmeat to urban markets. Furthermore, coltan mining similarly threatens gorillas in Central Africa. While we may believe we have little to do with these threats, it's our behavior within the global market that drive these activities. 

What You Can Do To Conserve Gorillas

4. Avoid sharing pictures/video of humans interacting with primates or other wild animals.

It may seem cute and harmless, but you are are contributing to industries of exploitation. This includes both the illegal pet trade, as well as individuals and organizations that keep animals in cruel and abusive situations for entertainment. Furthermore, it gives people (both adults and children), the idea that interacting with wild animals can be safe or fun. Kids are particularly impressionable, and if they see pictures/video of people playing with wild animals, of course they are going to want to do it to (I highly recommend reading  Please Do not Hug the Dangerous Wildlife  and watching Is Social Media Saving or Enslaving the Slow Loris for more information about this).

5. Remember Harambe with respect and dignity.

Gorillas are intelligent animals with complex emotions and social relationships, and I'm certain he will be missed and mourned by both his gorilla family and the humans who cared for him. My heart breaks for his keepers, and the female gorillas Mara and Chewie. Silverback gorillas are the center of gorillas social groups, and it will probably be difficult for Mara and Chewie to adjust to Harambe's absence. Silverback must protect their groups from takeovers from bachelor groups, as well as threats from human poachers. While we can't be certain of his intentions when interacting with Isaiah, I suspect that his actions were rooted in protecting his group.

* I believe it is ethical to keep great apes in zoos, and am confident that AZA-accredited zoos prioritize animal welfare. However, I've avoided addressing this subject here, because that delving into that topic requires it's own post.


  1. Thank you for such a well thought out and insightful post. I will be sharing this far and wide.

  2. Seconded. Thank you for laying all this out, and in such thoughtful detail.

  3. Thanks Chelle. My feelings on this story have been so torn and I really appreciate your insight.