The fatal shooting of a gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo last week, after a young boy fell into its enclosure, has triggered a storm of controversy. The zoo has been loudly condemned by vocal local and online communities, angered at what they see as an over reaction, and hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world have signed a petition calling for the boy’s parents to be held accountable for the animal’s death.
On the 28th of May, the 4-year-old child, who has not been named, managed to climb over barriers and get into the Gorilla World enclosure at the zoo, where he fell into the moat. Harambe, a 180kg male lowland gorilla, was shot dead after a 10-minute encounter with the boy, during which he grabbed the child and dragged him through the water. At this point the Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team decided the situation had become ‘life-threatening’, and they made a kill shot with the boy sitting between Harambe’s legs.
However, people on social media have claimed that Harambe was acting to protect the boy from a perceived threat emanating from the screams of onlookers and that he wasn’t going to harm him. Supporters of this hypothesis point to a similar incident that took place in Jersey in 1986, when a five-year-old boy fell into a gorilla enclosure and lost consciousness. On that occasion a silverback gorilla named Jambo looked after the child, protecting him from other gorillas and stroking him, until he came around and started crying, at which point the gorillas retreated and the boy was rescued. Ten years later, a boy who fell into the ape pit at Brookfield Zoo and was knocked out, was cared for by 8-year-old gorilla Binti Jua, who handed him back to keepers.
Thane Maynard, the zoo director, has made a public appearance defending the shooting, saying that tranquilizer darts would not have worked quickly enough, and although the boy wasn’t being attacked, he ‘certainly was at risk’ from a gorilla ‘six times stronger than a man’ that was acting ‘erratically’.
Maynard described how he has seen lowland gorillas crush coconuts with one hand, and affirmed that he would make the same decision again if faced with a similar set of circumstances. ‘[The officials] made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life,’ he said. ‘We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically endangered gorilla… This is a huge loss for the zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.’
The metre-high barrier around the gorilla enclosure exceeded ‘any required protocols,’ Maynard insisted, although he admitted that ‘anyone’ could climb it if they ‘want to’.
A petition on Change.org, started by local Cincinnati resident Sheila Hurt, is demanding that the parents ‘be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life’. It has thus far gained over 275,000 signatures, and the issue is trending on Facebook and Twitter, with many using the hashtag #JusticeForHarambe.
The child was unharmed, and has since been released from hospital. The family have issued a statement saying: ‘We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff. We know that this was a very difficult decision for them and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla.’
Although they did not witness the shooting, two female gorillas have reportedly since been looking for Harambe, who was born in captivity in Texas and moved to Cincinnati zoo in 2014 to take part in their breeding program.
The controversy over the gorilla’s death comes hot on the heels of another incident at a zoo in Santiago, Chile last week, when two lions were shot dead after a man entered their pen and stripped naked in a supposed suicide attempt. In that case too, the zoo defended their actions saying that no fast-activating tranquilizers were available. The two incidents have provoked a strong reaction from animal groups such as PETA, who are highly critical of zoos.