4 Things to Take Away From the Tragic Shooting of Harambe the Gorilla

As nearly anyone with a television or Internet connection knows, over the weekend a young boy visiting a zoo in Cincinnati somehow managed to get into the enclosure of a gorilla named Harambe (from an endangered subspecies), ending with the ape's being shot by a zookeeper to protect the boy. It's a tragedy that has all the elements to stoke the fires of public outrage — everyone seems to have an opinion, either blaming the boy's parents for being negligent, or defending them against the huge wave of criticism they've received. Others have questioned why Harambe had to be killed, rather than tranquilized, and others have asked why we continue to have zoos at all. The outrage over this tragedy echoes the Cecil the lion story from a few months back in several ways, not the least of which is a collective wave of anger over what seems like the senseless loss of an endangered animal in a place he should've been safe.

So what can we take away from this tragic event?

4. Too Many People Are Eager to Blame the Boy's Parents OR Defend Them.

Perhaps the biggest piece of the public-outrage pie is the issue of parent bashing that has folks on both sides of the issue fighting with each other. Almost immediately, the Internet erupted with accusations that the mother of the boy who ended up in Harambe's enclosure was negligent or worse. Some folks are of the opinion that the family involved should be charged with a crime or be met with serious consequences of one kind or another. I've also witnessed a whole lot of people rush to defend the mother of the boy, usually with a "kids can get away from you in a second" defense or a variation of it.

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To me it seems like the prudent thing to do would be to wait until the investigation is done, then look at why this tragedy happened, and consider any legal consequences at that point. People love to judge one another; it's something we humans sadly find really satisfying, and it plays to the worst side of our nature. The Internet in particular seems to amplify our judgmental and angry divisions over issues, and things get ugly fast. Some of those blaming the mother of the young boy took their criticisms way too far considering the facts we have to go on, and there's no real defense of the worst of it. On the other hand, lots of other folks seem to feel that "kids are hard to control" is a valid defense of the parents in this case, no matter what, and that seems like a really weak argument, too.

If it turns out that the actions of the kid's mother were seriously negligent, then she deserves to be held responsible. At that point, "it's hard to keep an eye on children" isn't a very convincing defense. But until we have a better idea of what really happened, it's probably best to avoid making bad parenting the focus of this debate. If it turns out that the zoo had inadequate barriers between the public and Harambe's enclosure, then that could change the entire focus of this story.

3. Unfortunately, the Zoo Couldn't Tranquilize Harambe Instead of Shooting Him.

I heard a lot of people asking this question, and it's a reasonable one. We've all seen lots of movies in which a person or animal gets hit with a tranquilizer dart and immediately goes down like a sack of tired rocks. So why did the zoo decide to use a bullet instead? Unfortunately, that instant "knockout" effect is seen only in movies and on television shows, and in real life, animals sometimes take a minute or two to succumb to the drugs after they're hit with a dart. In that time, a several-hundred-pound gorilla could easily hurt or kill someone near it, so unfortunately authorities were left with little real choice in this case. 

Considering the close bonds that keepers tend to form with the animals in their care, and the enormous financial investment that raising a gorilla for 17 years must involve, killing Harambe was probably a really horrific decision for the zoo to have to make, and something none of them would have done if they thought they had any other effective way to protect the child. If a "movie magic"-style tranquilizer dart had been a realistic option, the zoo would have used it.

2. Some Are Questioning the Way Zoos Allow Visitors to Interact With the Animals.

Zoos as we know them started out as menageries simply for the entertainment of people, putting them on about the same level as old-fashioned circuses that featured trained animals. However, for decades they've evolved to emphasize education, research and conservation efforts. Zoos have helped raise populations of certain endangered animals, and have served useful purposes outside of just entertaining visitors. Many observers believe that allowing people, and especially young people, the opportunity to experience wild animals in a zoo helps to make them more aware of our natural world and the creatures sharing it with us.

However, in light of what happened in Cincinnati, perhaps it's time we at least consider changing a few things. Regarding the recent tragedy, conservationist Jeff Corwin had a message for parents: "Zoos aren't your babysitter," and it's not parent bashing or unreasonable to expect that people control their children in an environment where potentially dangerous animals live.

Unless almost fool-proof precautions can be made to keep the public separated from the animals on display, perhaps zoos should prohibit kids under a certain age from visiting some exhibits. Heck, technology has allowed dead musicians to "perform" through the use of holograms; maybe using those tools is a better way to allow kids an early exposure to gorillas or other potentially dangerous animals. In any case, if it turns out that a small child could easily climb a small fence within a few seconds and find himself in a gorilla enclosure, something needs to change.

1. The Death of Harambe Is a Tragedy, but the Outrage Should Be Redirected at the Bigger Picture.

Western lowland gorillas like Harambe are critically endangered in the wild. Fewer than 1,000 gorillas are estimated to be living on the whole planet, because of natural scourges like Ebola, as well as poaching and habitat destruction by human beings. Very much as with the outrage that followed the killing of Cecil the lion, there is an issue bigger than the tragic death of Harambe. Make no mistake, his life was precious and irreplaceable, but rather than only angrily focusing on placing blame, we should be using this moment to look at what can be done to help gorillas and other endangered species in the wild. It would be an even bigger tragedy to ignore the plight of gorillas being killed and driven closer to extinction every day as soon as our anger over Harambe's death is redirected to a new Internet outrage du jour.

Harambe was loved by many, and his death was a horrible event that needs to result in new measures to make sure nothing like it can happen again, but the saddest takeaway from this is that he was in a zoo to protect his species from...us. And we couldn't even get that right. We owe it to Harambe and the remaining gorillas living on Earth to do better, and to do whatever we can to keep them around as a species. That's the really important task at hand.

Here are a few great organizations to help support the well-being of gorillas in the wild:

The African Wildlife Foundation

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

The Wildlife Conservation Society

The World Wildlife Fund

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