There are two major issues fueling outrage over the unnecessary killing of Harambe, one of only a few remaining western lowland gorillas and one of the former star attractions at the Cincinnati Zoo.
First, regardless of who was right or who was wrong, the incident should never have happened. Ever. Second, it’s the latest in a lengthening syllabus of tragic tales involving the cruel deaths of exotic (or not-so-exotic) animals; each tear-jerking obituary cascading through our social media feeds with infuriating regularity, further emphasizing the cruel realities of human ignorance.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an animal rights guy. I’m neither activated nor religious about it, usually, but I was once a card-carrying PETA member (before its worsening tactics turned me off). Additionally, my charity of choice is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and, yes, I once “adopted” a gorilla through the Fossey organization. Not literally, of course, but insofar as my donations went directly to the care of a young mountain gorilla.
Suffice to say, the news of what occurred in Cincinnati has festered in my brain and on my Facebook page throughout the long weekend. As of this writing, it’s impossible for me to shake the idea that a rare lowland silverback gorilla was killed, due almost entirely to the negligence of humans — the parents and zoo officials alike — as well as the ill-informed view that gorillas are fearsome monsters who’d randomly murder a child. They’re not. Couple this common misconception with a lack of respect for exotic animals and it’s easy to understand what happened, regardless of how heartbreaking it was. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t heartbroken by this story.
There’s accountability to be doled out today for sure. Obviously, given the circumstances, the zoo didn’t have any other choice than to kill Harambe. That’s not to say I endorse what happened. I don’t. But the zoo shouldn’t have been left with only two impossible options, tranquilizer or death, in the first place. It’s been widely confirmed that “Gorilla World” has existed at the zoo for 38 years — nearly my entire lifetime — and in all those years, and given how many people have managed to sneak into animal paddocks on a regular basis, the zoo only devised two solutions — one that put humans in danger and one that destroyed the animal(s)? Really?
Utterly stupid and inexcusable.
Cincinnati and countless other zoos are in the business of caring for and displaying rare animals in captivity for the enjoyment of the general public, so you’d think there’d be a wide array of varying solutions for every conceivable contingency involving the general public getting itself into trouble. Like it always does. Therefore, the best plan Cincinnati officials could devise was to either tranq the animal or kill it? Two solutions that most laypeople suggested within seconds of hearing the news about Harambe? Yes, the zoo did the only thing it was equipped to do, and that’s strictly because it hadn’t bothered to come up with anything else. In 38 years.
Additionally, if a silverback gorilla is such a threat to spectators, requiring that the gorilla be shot to death when confronted by the presence of a 4-year-old human child (a zoo’s target demo), then why make it that easy to slip into the paddock? Again, in 38 years and numerous similar events elsewhere, the zoo never thought to design an enclosure that combined childproof safety with unobstructed views of the animals? Pathetic. Knowing this, Harambe’s death was tragically inevitable.
Indeed, Harambe was killed by a disgusting lack of human imagination.
This includes a lack of parental imagination by Michelle Gregg, the mother of the child who managed to outwit and outmaneuver his parent and numerous spectators in order to make his way through multiple protective barriers and into the gorilla paddock. (Gregg will have to live with her fatal mistake, and that’s punishment enough.)
On the flip side of human imagination is the ongoing series of animal abuse stories flooding our inboxes and News Feeds. When it comes to doling out pain and torture, our imaginations are nauseatingly well formed. Our species is and always has been poisoned by high profile sociopaths who are criminally deficient when it comes to respect and empathy for animals of all varieties, chiefly the most beautiful and rare animals remaining in the wild. We’ve seen the images of wealthy maniacs with their rifles and shit-eating grins hovering over the corpses of defenseless elephants, rhinos and, yes, lions such as Cecil, whose death lacked any greater purpose whatsoever. (No child was in danger, etc.) We’ve also been routinely confronted by millions of harrowing stories of domestic animal abuse involving malnourished or abandoned cats and dogs, countless thousands of which are forced to die passively, either in relentless pain or in shelters.
Why? For so many Americans, animals are treated like disposable impulse-purchased furniture that just so happens to poop and eat. Of course, animals can’t speak, and the lack of speech propels the false impression that animals are unfeeling, unthinking beasts who can be tossed away like garbage. Many of us are fed up with it all, especially knowing that animal protection and sentience laws are ridiculously low on the priority list of Congress and state legislatures.
The intense frustration and sympathetic outcry over Harambe during the Memorial Day weekend was a culmination of these injustices foisted upon way too many animals — injustices that could be avoided with better education and awareness of non-lethal solutions. Yet if a major zoo can’t foresee those solutions, how are generally uneducated rank-and-file pet owners supposed to do the same?
A biblical view of nature continues to flourish here, even among some who don’t realize the Bible’s influence. Put another way, contra-Bible, the natural world isn’t here solely for the benefit or indulgence of humans, as organized religion falsely instructs us, thus further exacerbating human ignorance — nor should humans exploit their perceived dominance over nature, other than in the context of unavoidable life and death conundrums.
The question in the aftermath of Harambe’s death isn’t the mind-bogglingly simplistic one of “shoot or else.” It’s a matter of human ignorance once again prevailing over ingenuity, and a rare animal that shares 98 percent of its genes with you is dead because of it. (Humans, by the way, are part of the Hominidae or “great ape” taxonomic family, which includes chimps, orangutans and gorillas.) What does the allegedly expert-driven “shoot it or else” solution teach casual observers about exotic animals, not to mention everyday pets? It teaches that animals are ultimately throw-away non-entities to be destroyed at will, for either food, sport or inconvenience. To repeat: they’re disposable consumer items, and even the schooled, accredited experts seem to agree. Consequently, we can expect that people will continue behave with kneejerk aggression in similar situations, some of them in the context of wild animals as well as household pets. I won’t even get into the repulsive bush-meat trade that’s helped to land western lowland gorillas on the critically endangered list.
This is why the outrage surrounding Harambe’s death is so important. If nothing else, it helps to countermand the perpetual notion that animals are here for us, to entertain and amuse us, rather than being a part of the same ecosystem we rely upon to survive. Here’s to hoping that something good will come of Harambe’s death. The reversal of human ignorance and human narcissism is a good start, however unlikely.