Harambe – Rest in Peace

The story of the shooting of Harambe, the lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati commanded the air waves and TV time for several days. Harambe’s story, like that of Cecil the Lion, had the emotional power unique to human/animal interest news.

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Kwitonda, a silver-backed male mountain gorilla enjoys a snack of bamboo shoots.

It reminded me of the great dilemma for management decision-making. When you manage a property visited by people, sometimes you are caught between a rock and a hard place. Cincinnati Zoo managers had to choose between two undesirable options. They chose the almost sure thing in terms of safety for the child, but an option fraught with reasonable criticism. Jack Hanna, famed zoo director and TV spokesman, said they made the right choice. He knows a zoo director who would choose protecting the animal over the safety of a child would likely be fired quickly, even with a good outcome in terms of injuries. Institutional managers and boards are reasonably risk-aversive.

For those of us who have seen gorillas up close in the wild, this was especially painful. People visit habituated gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda each day with highly trained guides and the 400-pound males allow strangers to mingle in their family space without conflict. The silverbacks and the guides keep a watchful eye on all concerned to ensure that everyone gets along and as long as individuals of both species keep a respectful distance from each other. It works. These close cousins of ours are herbivores. They continue to carry on their daily activities and eat bamboo shoots and other plant material with apparent unconcern while being photographed and watched up close. Harambe was habituated from birth at a zoo in Texas. He was not “wild” and never had been. Keepers had observed his behavior and responses to various situations all his life. Would he have harmed the child beyond what the fall did? We will never know.

Harambe’s behavior seemed more protective than threatening from the clips of the event that have aired. Perhaps something more threatening occurred that we didn’t see. Could they have fired a tranquilizer dart first and followed with a gunshot if Harambe reacted badly? Perhaps. But a decision was made and he is dead and no amount of conjecture will bring him back. And the child is safe, an outcome we would all applaud.

How did a child get into this exhibit? That’s under examination and the accident suggests that the fence was inadequate. They have already installed a taller one just days after the event. This kind of sad situation will send zoos all over the world into a reexamination of their emergency procedures and their physical structures that protect both the animals and the public. Did a parent have a lapse in watching the child? Perhaps, but all of us who have raised children have had lapses in attention. The result of this one was unfortunate for all involved. Blaming the mother seems counter-productive. She will live with this close call for her child the rest of her life.

Harambe was never going back to the wild. He was a captive ambassador for relatives in the wild he would never meet. And perhaps the saddest part of the story is the continued threats in Africa to the wild populations of lowland and mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas have moved from a low of 230 animals two decades ago to more than 880 today due to the ability of the nations of Rwanda and Uganda to protect family groups through gorilla tourism, a powerful financial engine that also builds empathy by bringing people up close to these amazing relatives of humans.

The western lowland gorilla, Harambe’s species, is believed to be more numerous than mountain gorillas, but endangered nonetheless. Estimates are that their populations are in sharp decline due to habitat loss and civil wars in their home ranges in several equatorial African nations. And their remote habitats in war zones in tropical rainforest make accurate population surveys impossible.

The future of gorillas in the wild is uncertain and Harambe’s early death did not change that. It did renew the discussion of how zoos handle and protect large animals of all kinds, while simultaneously protecting their visitors. This event hopefully also reminds us of the importance of protecting wild populations. Gorillas deserve protected places in the world, safe from human conflicts and destruction of habitat. We create virtually all of the threats they face. Will we care enough to help these large primates, our distant relatives, have a future? It’s a big question not easily answered. Rest in Peace, Harambe.

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