Last summer, the world mourned as one following the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old male lion that was killed near his home in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. An American big game hunter tracked and killed the animal in July. Weeks later, reports surfaced alleging the hunter and his professional guides had killed the lion illegally.

Initial shock turned to anger and then harassment against the hunter, Palmer, along with his wife and daughter. For weeks, the public continued to argue the legality of the kill. Meanwhile, online petitions raised signatures in hopes of garnering enough support to have Palmer extradited and face criminal charges.

Of course, there was more to the story than what our western media presented to the general public. The media labeled Cecil as a “celebrated,” “friendly,” and “loved” tourist attraction.

Although Cecil was part of a long term study at Oxford University for lion conservation, most publications neglected to mention the depth of human vs. animal conflict in Zimbabwe. Imposing views of the western world, who have all but eradicated their own native apex predators, are in no position to dictate the ethics surrounding trophy hunting or trivialize the struggle and danger of those who cohabit alongside wild animals.

This past weekend the world was again struck with the feeling of grief when news broke that Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla, was killed in his exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo after a 4 year-old boy managed to climb over and fall inside it.

The Death of Harambe

According to reports, the young boy hopped a fence, crawled through a barrier, and fell 15 feet into the gorilla exhibit shared by Harambe and two female gorillas. The USDA will investigate further, but director Thane Maynard objects to much of the criticism, stating the zoo has never had a breach since the exhibit opened in 1978. Whether or not the enclosure itself was flawed structurally is an important discussion that is imperative to the future safety of the animals and public, and one that I hope officials will take seriously.

The boys mother, along with a crowd of zoo patrons, watched helplessly as the incident unfolded below. Smart phone videos captured the interaction and, though unintentional, also managed to document the single worst thing onlookers could have done in response: scream and cry.

It’s important to keep in mind that emergency protocol for any accredited institution will always value the safety of a child over an animal. As time-sensitive as the incident was, zoo officials had to make a decision. There was a very real concern that Harambe could have caused serious physical harm, or death, to the young child.

The argument for or against keeping these animals in captivity, at all, is undeniably relevant. The concern for their welfare is warranted. But the anger in this particular case is misdirected.

The public has condemned the Cincinnati Zoo for their decision not to tranquilize Harambe, citing an incident with a gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo in 1996. Not only are these two incidents unrelated, but the vast majority of those criticizing the facility have not had any meaningful, close interactions with wild animals.

Tranquilizing an animal, especially from a distance, is no easy feat. Generally fired directly into the thick muscle tissue, the effects of the drug could take up to 15 minutes to have a long lasting impact. A 400-pound gorilla would need time to become immobilized. Some publications have argued that zoo officials should have increased the dosage to expedite the process. Of course, this recommendation completely disregards the need to administer accurate dosages of any drug, let alone a powerful sedative.

Other publications have criticized the mother of the young boy, requesting she be brought up on criminal charges of child neglect. While I can sympathize with those who question how a young boy managed to trapeze his way into a gorilla enclosure, the truth remains that we weren’t there to bear witness and have no place to judge so boldly.

Moving Forward

I’m often brutally honest and outspoken regarding my aversion to captivity. Those who study the physiological impacts of captivity on wild animals continue to corroborate research that sentient beings (gorillas included) do not fare well in captivity.

Many zoological institutions housing wild animals are outdated, and those that are capable of providing quality exhibits still find that stereotypic behaviors are prevalent. Other facilities fail in terms of educating the youth and do little to foster respect for wild animals or the conservation of their native habitat.

I don’t think it’s inconceivable to demand more from these institutions, and I hope that this incident precipitates a dialogue that benefits the welfare of all captive wild animals.

Keeping that in mind, it came as a surprise when I spent much of my weekend defending the actions of those who work at the Cincinnati Zoo. The hypocrisy of the general public is profound, bordering on frightening. This was the case last year when Cecil was killed, and now again, following the death of Harambe.

I only hope that if Harambe’s death struck a chord inside any single one of you who may come across this article, you also take the time to see how your actions impact thousands of wild and domestic animals all over the world every single day.

For now, my heart goes out to the keepers of Harambe, both past and present. Those who worked with him directly and on a daily basis are undoubedtly devastated not only by his loss, but by having their intentions and love for him questioned by thousands of strangers around the world.

One thought

  1. A very balanced and thoughtful summary of the situation. Thank you. And you are so right about hysterical knee-jerk reactions, and people’s hypocrisy – or at least, failure to join the dots. Ultimately, zoos are not the place for wild animals, and for the most part, claims of educating the public and benefiting conservation by holding such animals captive, is often little more than greenwashing.

    Liked by 1 person

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