By now you’ve heard the tragic tale of Harambe, the mirror image of King Kong in the eyes of everyone but the men who shot and killed the gorilla. Where Kong was a rampaging beast, Harambe was, by all accounts, a gentle giant; where Kong was a mass of mindless fury, Harambe was a contemplative intellect. Kong grew up as a wild beast in the jungle, while Harambe lived his entire 17 years in captivity. Kong carried off the helpless woman Fay Wray; Harambe was peaceably residing in his own habitat when a three-year-old boy intruded upon it. But in the end, both gorillas shared a common fate: death at the hands of human riflemen.
Harambe was a western lowland silverback gorilla, classified as a critically endangered species. The zoo had hoped to breed him. Gorillas are social animals and live in family units. They are also highly intelligent. Koko, a female lowland gorilla born in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo, has learned American Sign Language and knows more than 1000 signs; she understands 2,000 spoken English words and her I.Q. has been documented between 75 and 95.
Cincinnati Zoo employees shot and killed the rare gorilla after the three-year-old fell into the gorilla’s enclosure. The child tumbled 10-to-12 feet into the moat surrounding the habitat and might have drowned had it not been for Harambe. Videos posted on YouTube show Harambe dragging the boy out of the rushing water from the artificial waterfall to a spot of standing water. The boy was with the gorilla for about 10 minutes before the gunman arrived. This video was shot in that 10-minute period, during which time the 400-lb. gorilla had ample opportunity to harm the child if he had wanted to. You can hear the crowd screaming but the gorilla remained calm, at one point holding the boy’s hand and then pushing him on the backside to stand him up. At no time did the gorilla threaten or attack the child. Some argue the gorilla did a better job of caring for the child than the boy’s mother, who allowed a three-year-old to wander off at a public zoo. The boy was not harmed by the gorilla (he received scrapes on his forehead and elbow from the fall); the gorilla was shot and killed (causing children at the zoo to cry); the neglectful mother was not shot.
World-renowned primate expert Jane Goodall said “It looked as though the gorilla was putting an arm round the child — like the female who rescued and returned the child from the Chicago exhibit.” Goodall was referencing a 1996 incident at Chicago’sBrookfield Zoo when a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla den and Binti Jua, a female gorilla carrying her own baby on her back, picked up the boy and brought him to a service gate. Frans de Waal, director at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Living Links Center, said “Harambe was mostly protective...There was no moment of acute aggression, as also admitted by the zoo director. If the gorilla had wanted to kill the child, one bang of his fist would have done it. People have no idea of their superhuman strength. Yet, he didn’t perform any killing move.” In a similar incident in September 1986, a British boy fell 20 feet into a gorilla pit at the Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey island in the English Channel and was knocked unconscious. As in the two subsequent incidents, the crowd feared the gorillas would harm the boy, however Jambo, a male gorilla, watched over him as he regained consciousness until rescuers arrived.
Zoo officials argue they had no option but to shoot Harambe. I don’t buy the argument there was no time to use a tranquilizer dart, when the gorilla was with the boy for more than 10 minutes. If this were an aggressive, violent animal, the boy would have been dead within the first 60 seconds. A far greater risk was posed by firing bullets anywhere near the child, where a bullet could hit him, or ricochet and then hit the boy or anyone in the crowd. I also question the wisdom of shooting a 400-lb. gorilla and hoping it does not fall on top of the boy standing between its legs. Finally, while the gorilla was not aggressive, had it been shot and merely wounded it would have become disoriented and lashed out in pain and anger at anything near it – especially the child. There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal.
I think the zoo killed Harambe because it was more concerned with the prospect of a lawsuit for negligence in allowing the zoo visitor to fall into the gorilla pit. It did a cost-benefit analysis and decided it could mitigate any damages from a negligence suit if it took dramatic action to “save” the child, regardless of whether the threat of imminent harm was high or low.
The real culprit in this case is not the gorilla but rather the zoo for its negligence in the construction and design of the enclosure and the mother for her negligence in allowing her child to wander off in a public place. How does any responsible parent allow a three-year-old out of her sight? Yes, I realize toddlers will toddle; that is what the law calls foreseeability (non-lawyers call this the Homer Simpson “Duh!” moment). You know your child is likely to wander off, which is why you have a duty of supervision when you bring your toddler to a zoo filled with wild animals. The child’s mother, who ironically works for a Cincinnati daycare preschool, should know this. Suppose the child had not fallen into the pit but had instead fallen into the hands of a child molester? That’s why parents must always watch their kids in public places. Duh!
The boy climbed through a three-foot fence and toddled across another four feet before falling. That’s not a split-second. What was the mother doing? Taking a photo, according to witnesses. And even if the child had been in the clutches of a child molester (someone with both the ability and intent to harm the child, unlike the gorilla who lacked any apparent intent), the authorities would not have immediately shot and killed the human because they place a much higher value on human life than on animals... despite the fact that gorillas are an extremely intelligent species and this particular one had been raised for 17 years in the zoo, so zoo officials knew Harambe’s history and behavior. This is a litigious debate, not a moral one, being played out with the negligent zoo and the negligent parents attempting to misdirect attention from their own respective culpability by making the “big bad gorilla” the villain in the story.
It comes down to this being a judgment call that was executed with poor judgment. Had the circumstances been different – If the gorilla had jumped out of the enclosure and grabbed the child; or if this had been a gorilla with a known history of aggression; or if the action were taken the moment the boy fell into the pit before we saw Harambe spend 10 minutes without harming the child; or if Harambe had made any aggressive move or shown any aggressive change in his attitude or behavior; and if there were no less drastic methods available, then there would be a better justification for shooting the rare animal. But this was the “gentle giant” Harambe, not King Kong.
The difference between Harambe the gorilla and man is, that given the opportunity, Harambe chose not to kill. By his restraint, he proved he understood civilization far better than his hairless cousins.