The question was never about whether Harambe should have been shot or not

Published: June 4, 2016
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The killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on Friday has resulted in a total and complete social media meltdown. The incident has garnered rage, an outpouring of online-hate, as well as the sympathies of many. The severity of the incident depends on who you ask.

Harambe, an endangered western lowland gorilla had just turned 17. The zoo even celebrated his birthday. But who would have thought that the primate would be shot to death the very next day? The reason this ape was killed was because a four-year-old fell into his enclosure.

In the video it can be seen that Harambe grabbed the child, tossed him around a few times and dragged him around the enclosure. After evaluating the situation, zoo officials decided to kill Harambe instead of tranquilising him. They later explained that tranquilising the gorilla was not an option; there were risks associated with using a tranquiliser dart to sedate Harambe that could make him react dangerously.

It all happened in the span of approximately 10 minutes; from the instant the boy fell into Harambe’s enclosure up until the decision to kill the primate. And that moment has been turned into a movement.

Some people believe Harambe was protecting the child in the same way a gorilla would protect its offspring. And some people feel that putting the ape to death was a rational choice.

I am no expert on anthrozoology, but Harambe’s behaviour may have been normal gorilla play. It is common knowledge that gorillas are self-aware. They love, hoot, sing, play, and grieve. Western lowland gorillas are tender animals. They don’t get violent unless they’re provoked.

I am sure all of us remember the 1996 incident that involved a celebrated female gorilla. The eight-year-old Binti Jua had gently picked up a three-year-old unconscious child who had fallen into her enclosure and cradled him in her arms before carefully handing him over to Brookfield Zoo keepers.

Binti Jua gently picked up an unconscious child who had fallen in her enclosure and handed him over to zoo authorities.
Photo: Pinterest

Here, Harambe’s enclosure was also his home; a place where he felt safe. When the boy fell into his home, it was somewhat an act of trespassing that most likely startled Harambe and left him feeling a sense of danger. In this case, the bystanders were screaming and yelling as they witnessed the boy being dragged around by the simian. Perhaps that made Harambe panic, provoking him to haul the child around the enclosure the way he did. He could’ve easily killed the boy in a heartbeat; but he didn’t.

Where children are concerned – they are supposed to act like children. Just like animals are supposed to act like animals, and gorillas like gorillas. If you have closely interacted with children you would know that, once you turn your back, they’ll be up to some kind of mischief or the other. They are errant that way. So, as adults, we have to be careful.

Following Harambe’s death, I have been observing the hate mechanism. The boy’s mother is getting a huge swell of social media backlash for not being attentive enough and failing to keep an eye on her son, especially in a place where wild beasts roam – well, the missing child must have been missing for some time to have gotten through the barriers on his own. Overnight, she’s become a universal figure for foul-parenting, imprudence and irresponsibility because it was ultimately her lack of supervision that caused the murder of an endangered animal and put her son’s life in jeopardy.

I see burgeoning animal rights movements, vigils and petitions for Harambe and ‘the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused the ape to lose his life’. A “Justice for Harambe” page has been created on Facebook and already has over 114,000 followers.

Harambe is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the zoo.
Photo: Cincinnati Zoo via Reuters

The killing of Harambe is sad, but it’s hard to argue with the zoo’s decision. In picking between its life and that of a human child, the choice was obvious. The call had to be made to secure the life of the child. But that doesn’t mean Harambe’s death is something that should just be accepted as fate. The real issue behind Harambe’s death is that of responsibility and accountability, or rather the lack of both. But amid the debate over who was at fault, we need to step back and ask a different question.

Why was Harambe caged in a zoo?

As we raise disputes over human responsibility, we also need to question the concept of animal captivity and the ethics of having zoos in the first place.

I understand the idea of breeding animals for consumption, that too if only done ethically, but caging animals in the name of human entertainment is just beyond my comprehension.

Most of us make a lot of noise about the human concern for the well-being of animals and their inherent rights. We fashionably propose legal, biological and philosophical arguments over animal rights. We dismiss elevating one’s own species above other creatures as “speciesism”. But, what about putting animals in cage for our amusement? Isn’t that downright speciesism?

It’s fathomable that Harambe had to be killed to save the toddler but it is out-and-out ridiculous to set the blame on the ape or the boy’s mother. The woman did not deliberately throw her child before the ape and the gorilla cannot be found culpable for functioning like his kind is designed to.

No matter how much of a natural environment you create for an animal in the zoo, it cannot compare to its natural habitat. Neither will it pacify their animalistic traits. For instance, a lion will still be a lion, even if he is kept in a zoo and caged behind iron bars. He will still have his hunter instincts. If such instincts are not catered to, as they would be in a jungle or a natural environment, and if it doesn’t hunt for a prolonged period of time, then it is inclined to get frustrated. It can very well attack your child, who may just be trying to step closer to the cage to get a better look. Within one split second, you wouldn’t even want to imagine what can happen.

So, you can’t blame the animal. To put it simply, it’s a beast and it is not fair to kill it for acting like one. It is no rocket science to understand that this is how animals are.

When observing the behaviour of the fauna of the wild, given their in-built mannerisms, I am reminded of a tragic accident that took place in a South African safari park last year. A twenty-nine-year-old American tourist Katherine Chappell, who worked as an editor on the hit TV programme Game of Thrones, was killed in the safari park north of Johannesburg while taking a break from a two-week volunteering project on another nature preserve.

Despite the warning to keep her windows closed as she toured the safari park and the signage put up everywhere, the tourist had her windows rolled down. It was in a matter of seconds that the car she was in was pounced upon by a lioness and she was mauled to death. According to the witnesses, the lioness had bitten off half the passenger’s shoulder. Although the animal retreated from the vehicle, blood dripping from its mouth and paw and the rangers rushed to rescue but it was too late to do anything to save the holidaymaker.

Photo: Barcroft Media

Chappell might have been too consumed by the thrill of being face-to-face with a magnificent cat but she paid for it with her life. It was carelessness on her part. And she is not the only one who fell victim to such recklessness; there are many such incidents that have been widely reported. It is not that difficult to understand that whether you see an animal in the wild or at a zoo, it is your responsibility to understand the risks involved.

This image captures the horrifying the moment the lioness reared up before attacking American tourist Katherine Chappell.
Photo: featureworld.co.uk

When it comes to this zoo incident, parental negligence is no excuse for a living being to lose its life. The lesson for us is to watch our children and ensure they don’t expose themselves to life-threatening danger. But a more serious lesson that unfolds here is that putting endangered species of animals in cages (under the pretext of protecting them) is the biggest and most inhumane of human failures.

I hope Harambe did not die in vain and his life was not traded off for nothing. I hope his death serves as a solution to the plight of captive animals. I pray that the zoo mentality can be phased out sometime in the future and investment in zoos can instead be used to preserve populations of wild animals in their homes. These sorts of changes do not take place overnight. They take time. But I do hope that slowly and steadily we will move in this direction.

Sajja Shah

Sajja Shah

The author is IoBM graduate with majors in Journalism. Her interests include reading and writing.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.