Inquirer editorial: Harambe reconsidered
"Don't be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel." - from "King Kong" Harambe, the western lowland gorilla killed by a Cincinnati Zoo employee last weekend after a child fell into his enclosure, was eulogized by a ritual chorus of social-media-fueled second-guessing. Had the zoo done enough to keep toddlers out of its goril
"Don't be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel."
- from "King Kong"
Harambe, the western lowland gorilla killed by a Cincinnati Zoo employee last weekend after a child fell into his enclosure, was eulogized by a ritual chorus of social-media-fueled second-guessing. Had the zoo done enough to keep toddlers out of its gorilla cage? Did the gorilla have to be shot? Was the boy's mother negligent and therefore responsible for the gorilla's death? Were the white people questioning a black woman's parenting skills racist? And, finally, what did Donald Trump think about all this?
All these questions served primarily to distract from the hardest question raised by Harambe's death: whether he, like hundreds of his kind, should have been held captive in an urban center for the viewing pleasure of a species with which he shared 98.4 percent of his DNA. While sympathy for the gorilla was one of the few feelings that seemed to unite the humans considering his death, the fullest expression of that sympathy might have prevented confining him to the circumstances in which he lived out his 17 years of abruptly curtailed life.
Most experts agree that Harambe posed a mortal threat to the child, and Cincinnati Zoo officials killed him according to the principle that human life is worth more than animal life. Though we tend to acknowledge it less readily or consistently, some animal lives must in turn be considered more valuable than others. Hence the Philadelphia Zoo is one of more than a score nationwide that, under considerable pressure over the past two decades, have phased out elephant exhibits, as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus did last month. Facing still greater opprobrium, SeaWorld announced in March that it would cease breeding another massive, intelligent mammal, the killer whale.
If sentience and size make captivity inappropriate for orcas and elephants, gorillas can't be far behind. For all his hulking 450 pounds, Harambe didn't approach the dimensions of Tilikum - the 6-ton, literally killer whale whose turn in Blackfish forced SeaWorld's hand - but a wild gorilla can range across 16 square miles. Nor is there any doubting the animals' intelligence. Among humans' closest relatives, gorillas use tools in the wild and have learned sign language in captivity. They have also developed cardiac and psychological disorders in zoos, necessitating treatment with beta blockers and Prozac.
In at least two earlier cases, gorillas have acted protectively toward children who fell into their enclosures. Indeed, the controversy over Harambe's killing was stoked partly by a King Kong-esque moment, caught on cellphone camera, in which he seemed to treat the boy in his cage as one might expect of a gentle, vegetarian giant. Even Trump had to admit it was "beautiful."
Acknowledging the ethical problems inherent in keeping primates captive isn't tantamount to closing all the zoos, which provide valuable education and entertainment even if they haven't done much for gorillas and other endangered species in the wild. Among arrays of species and enclosures, some combinations are less troubling than others. But the gorilla isn't the first animal whose captivity has to be reconsidered, and it won't be the last.
Did Harambe have to die? It's an academic question now. The more practical and important one is whether he had to live as he did.