As if you could have missed it this weekend, a tragedy occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo. If you haven’t read the story – a kid performed some impressive skills in getting through four barriers – including a fence, a drop and a MOAT for goodness sake, and ended up with a 17 year old gorilla named Harambe. While this seems like an impossible feat to many, my son turned five last week, so I can assure you it is very possible. The gorilla handled the child and dragged it. He ignored the zoo keeper’s calls to come inside. Sadly the zoo’s dangerous animal response team made the decision to kill Harambe.

It was hard for me to stand by and watch my newsfeed blow up with friends angry at what had happened, even more-so at the outcome. It’s especially hard for me to watch the angry posts because I’m a trained zoologist. I spent a good 12 years of my life working with wild animals in South Africa and teaching the public about them. I’ve since started a second career as a fitness trainer, but wildlife is my absolute passion. As I mentioned I’m also a mother of a child about the same age as the one that worked his way into the enclosure, so I feel like I have some perspective here that others don’t.

What I’ve seen on Facebook, Twitter and in the media are lots of judgments of the parents and the zoo: “Why didn’t the mother have better control over her son?” Why didn’t the zoo just tranquilize the animal?” What I want you to do right now is to suspend judgement of everyone in this situation.  Even without the internet mob descending on her, this mother has to feel awful that her son was able to get himself into a life-and-death situation on her watch and a gorgeous animal was killed as a result. We don’t know what actually happened yet, and four-year-olds are both determined, slippery and fearless. Additionally, unless you’ve worked with large animals, you aren’t qualified to judge whether the zoo staff acted appropriately or not.

If you’re sitting behind a keyboard or the screen of a smartphone right now using ALL CAPS to express your anger at everyone in this situation, I’m going to ask you to stop. You’re not helping.

Before I establish what the zoo staff were likely thinking of when they pulled the trigger, I want to say my heart goes out to the special team that had to come in and pull it; the pressure and their own emotion in the situation had to be unbearable. It was a decision I’m sure no one wanted to make. Additionally, everyone agrees the child shouldn’t have been able to get into the enclosure, that’s a given. This is a situation that no one wanted to be in.

  • Zoos, their zoologists, animal caregivers and staff care tremendously for their animals, regardless of your (or my) views on animals in captivity. They name the animals as they’re born, get to know them, treat them, entertain them and establish emotional connections with them. While it’s not the same, the zoo staff were likely feeling similar to the parents of the child in that situation. Everyone wanted Harambe to walk away, no one wanted to kill him.
  • This is not the Jungle Book – primates are among the most vicious and unpredictable animals on Earth. It is very sad how disengaged we have become with what wildlife actually is and what “normal” behavior for a wild animal constitutes. Wild animals in nature are not typically peaceful creatures coexisting. What we see on National Geographic – even the hardest scenes to watch – are nothing compared to what’s left on the cutting room floor. This kid could have literally been ripped apart limb from limb.  This is often what primates do to intruders.
  • Tranquilizing the animal was not an option. Just like anesthesia isn’t one size fits all for humans, it’s the same for wild animals.  It would have taken time to get the right drugs at the right dose in the shot, then it would have taken time to take effect (if the dose was right), time the zoo didn’t have.  Complicating matters, a large animal when tranquilized doesn’t fall to the ground dopey like they do in cartoons. Instead, the fight or flight instinct kicks in, and they can become violent.

While the public saw a gorilla playing curiously with a child, myself and other zoologists saw that the child was in incredible danger the moment he fell into the moat. The gorilla ignored the zookeepers, and tranquilizing him wasn’t an option. The zoo had no choice but to kill Harambe. I’m not trying to blame the gorilla for being shot, he was only following his natural instincts.

When I worked in wildlife tourism in South Africa it would shock tourists how brutal, vicious and violent nature is. The baby giraffe that adorably hobbles to its legs and runs within minutes of birth has to do this or it is dead, eaten by a predator. It is that simple. The antelope that runs the slowest doesn’t make it. The cheetah that doesn’t catch an antelope starves. A new lion taking over a pride will kill all cubs to protect his own bloodline.

Around the world people die because they’ve lost their natural fear and respect of wildlife. They get out of their cars for a selfie with a lion a few metres away, they take a photo up close of an elephant and wind up trampled and goured to death, or they get too close to a buffalo and wind up trampled. People mistake threatening behavior for curiosity or excitement and wind up injured or dead.

If you’ve never worked with large animals like this, it’s easy to see Harambe’s behavior as innocent, but hopefully after reading this you’ve been able to see that the zoo had no other choice. That decision is the only reason the little boy is alive today. I am truly grateful we are mourning one life lost here and not two.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health