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PROFspectives: Cincinnati Zoo

News Story

After a 3-year-old boy fell into a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, Harambe, a 400-pound western lowland gorilla, was shot and killed. Issues of safety concerns, proper parenting, and animal rights are debated in response to the killing of Harambe in this month’s PROFspectives.

A 3-year-old boy and his parents ventured to The Cincinnati Zoo on a Saturday afternoon on May 28 to browse the hundreds of animals housed in the iconic facility. But what started as a fun family day out, turned into a tragic nightmare captured, watched, and debated around the world.

Intrigued by Gorilla World, an exhibit home to nine western lowland gorillas, the boy climbed through a barrier and plummeted nearly 15 feet into a shallow stream that runs throughout the enclosure. That’s when Harambe, a 17-year-old, 400-pound endangered gorilla, picked up the child and dragged him through the water in what the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team considered a life-threatening situation. Afraid that tranquilizers could agitate the animal and cause worse repercussions, the team decided to shoot and kill the gorilla in order to rescue the boy.

The incident drew widespread attention as a witness’s dramatic video spread across the Internet showing Harambe dragging the boy through the water as other zoo-goers screamed in panic. Thousands from across the world took to social media expressing their concerns, support, and disgust over the incident. Many weighed in on Twitter using the hashtags #JusticeforHarambe in disdain for the zoo’s decision to kill the gorilla and #ISupportMichelleGregg to show support for the mother of the child who some argue should have been watching her child more attentively. Some commenters believed the gorilla was playing or trying to help the boy, others said the boy, who left the exhibit unscathed, could have been fatally hurt had the team decided against shooting the animal.

As a society, we value human life over an animal’s, but people who are part of the Great Ape Personhood movement believe the great ape family should be granted personhood status and be treated as equals. This belief has caused even more outrage and confusion for many as to whether the killing of Harambe was an act of murder.

Police announced the mother of the child won’t face criminal charges in the wake of the incident despite public backlash.

In this issue of PROFsepectives, we’ve asked professors to weigh in on the legalities and conflicting opinions in response to the situation.

Michelle D. Land, JD
Director, MA in Environmental Policy and Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

A Gorilla's Death, a Child's Life, and the Future of Zoos

Based on media coverage of Harambe, the western lowland silverback gorilla shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo, we can conclude a few things:

>>First, the exhibit enclosure was inadequately secure to withstand the curiosity of an average, adventurous, 3-year-old. A 15-foot drop into a moat is dangerous enough without having a live gorilla waiting below.

>>Second, the mother was momentarily distracted by her other children. It happens to us all at some point in our parental lives, but few of us are subjected to the Internet shaming mob (or a gorilla).

>>Third, visitors to the exhibit screamed and panicked and an agitated Harambe dragged the boy through the moat. Harambe’s safe environment was made chaotic and frightening.

>>Finally, the zoo staff analyzed the potential danger and made the impossibly difficult decision to shoot Harambe to ensure the child’s safety. At this point, it was a no-win situation for the zoo. Imagine the alternative headline, "Zoo’s ‘Wait-and-See’ Approach Leads to Toddler’s Death in Gorilla Exhibit.”  

But let’s set aside these basic facts to ask some fundamental questions: Was Harambe on public display primarily to lure parents and children to the zoo or primarily to serve a valid conservation mission? If the latter, is there even a convincing argument that gorilla exhibits advance conservation of gorillas in the wild?

Zoos design exhibits to attract customers who want close contact with wild animals. Ideally, the captive animals are part of a program to safeguard biodiversity and conservation of species. But zoos have an undeserved reputation as nurseries for restocking wild populations of endangered animals.

The western lowland gorilla is a case in point. Threatened with extinction due to poaching for the bushmeat industry and habitat destruction from mining, agriculture and logging, it has experienced a 60% population decline over the last 25 years, according to the International Union of the Conservation of Nature. No conservation breeding programs, at American zoos or elsewhere, have contributed to the repopulation of this endangered primate.

Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton University, said in a New York Times interview, “Our primary concern ought to be the well-being of gorillas, but zoos are constructed the other way around: The primary concern is that humans can see the gorillas.” The new paradigm should be “conservation parks,” where the welfare of the animals and preservation of DNA reservoirs is the overriding mission. If that means no human visitors, so be it. The gorillas will be the better for it.

A proper response to Harambe’s death is for zoological institutions to reexamine their priorities and refocus their resources. Preservation of species in the wild can be accomplished without risking the lives of animals or people.

Randi Priluck, PhD
Professor of Marketing and Director of Continuous Improvement
Lubin School of Business

As a professor of social media and mobile marketing strategy, I approach the extremely sad incident at the Cincinnati Zoo by listening to the social media outcry. On June 1, I looked at Tweetreach to determine the extent to which certain hashtags on Twitter earned views. This mini-snapshot of the response showed that the hashtags associated with Harambe, such as #JusticeforHarambe and #ripHarambe earned significantly more attention than the hashtag #ISupportMichelleGregg. But does this really mean that more people support the notion that the zoo was wrong in its actions? Certainly not.

It is important to recognize that the Internet allows anyone to give an opinion on anything so easily that there is little consideration of the issue. There is so little reflection that a misspelling of Cincinnati Zoo (#Cincinattizoo) earned 277,465 impressions on June 1. Another problem with examining the online buzz is that it is really not representative of the response of the population. The only people represented in the buzz are those who chose give their opinions online on certain social media sites. So, the loudest and most active on Twitter tend to be heard and others with opinions who don’t post are not. Aside from writing my book Social Media & Mobile Marketing Strategy (Oxford, August 2016), I am also a mom who watched the video of the child dragged by the gorilla. The zoo had no choice but to intervene to save that boy and should have secured that enclosure so that children can’t get inside. It is a terribly sad incident and one that could have been avoided.

Andrew C. Revkin
“Dot Earth” blogger, The New York Times
Senior Fellow, Dyson College Institute for Sustainability and the Environment

The following excerpt was selected from Professor Revkin's full contribution to You can read the full article here.

I’ve become convinced it’s time for a fresh look at zoos, way beyond the issues of insulating their occupants from us.

An overarching factor behind the interspecies tragedy at Gorilla World is the facet of human nature that has allowed me and most of us—so far, at least—to uncritically value raising and displaying gorillas, among our closest kin, behind glass or moats or fences in the first place. Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but they all die never having really experienced what it is to be a gorilla. Harambe was born in a zoo in Brownsville, Tex.

There are signs that times are changing. Prominent circuses are, in fact, retiring their elephants. The Blackfish film helped shift norms for orcas, or killer whales.

But there’s more to be done. This issue was compellingly explored in Scientific American by Marc Bekoff, who studies animals’ minds and feelings and is a proponent of what he calls “compassionate conservation”:

“While some might say Harambe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.”

He calls for an end to captive breeding and an eventual shift from zoos to sanctuaries, with money saved going to conservation of species in the wild.

The counterargument from many zoos is that such exhibits already raise millions of dollars for field conservation and science while raising public awareness of the plight of our ape kin and other wildlife.

In the short run, it’s clear to me that zoos around the world should not only be reexamining their gorilla enclosures, but also examining how well they apportion income from such exhibits to programs that can protect this remarkable species in the wild.

In the long run, this is a good time for humans to begin reassessing our relationship with captive animals on many levels, and reassess how we experience “wild” life.

I don’t agree with every position of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but the organization compellingly summarized a prime lesson from Cincinnati on its website the day after the boy and gorilla had their momentous encounter:

“Zoos cannot even begin to meet these magnificent animals’ complex needs. Choose cruelty-free entertainment. Take a hike in the woods and watch wildlife in their natural habitat.”

Of course, as humans become an ever more urbanized species, and with poor communities often particularly insulated from unbuilt environments, taking a hike in a green place isn’t as easy as it should be.

And zoos — including the Cincinnati Zoo and, particularly, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo — do valuable conservation work. A broader shift from entertainment to conservation and care is more likely to occur if zoo goers press for it.

Matthew Aiello-Lammens, PhD
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Science
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

The killing of the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 29 sparked an active online debate about animal rights, responsibility, and culpability. These are important topics to discuss, but they greatly benefit from measured and thoughtful dialogue, which is sometimes lacking in fast paced digital media. The question "should a little boy's life be risked for the sake of saving a gorilla's life" certainly elicited many strong emotional responses, but it is also one that requires no small amount of ethical explorations. I will say, as a parent, I would do anything to secure my child's safety.

Taking a step back, this incident also begs us to reflect on what role zoos play in the conservation of nature and wildlife. Many, if not most, zoos contribute important tools to conservation of biodiversity, in particular for species that are considered threatened or endangered. Captive breeding programs result in populations of animals that could be re-introduced into the wild, such as the California Condor. They are also important for maintaining pools of genetic diversity, which may be vital for a species to survive in quickly changing environments.

An equally important conservation role zoos play is one of outreach and education. Zoos provide ordinary people the opportunity to see animals in real-life, a far different experience than watching them on television or looking at pictures. To some extent, they also provide some amount of interaction between person and animal, albeit in a very unnatural manner. Nevertheless, I have been incredibly moved by making eye contact with a cheetah or watching polar bears play. There is no doubt that the experience of seeing a western lowland gorilla in the wild will impact a person far greater than seeing this animal in a zoo, but for most of us, this will never be a possibility. And after an afternoon at the Bronx Zoo, that person might care a little more about wildlife, and potentially be willing to donate time, energy, or money toward making sure those animals survive on into the future.

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