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Why Animals Do The Thing

On Harambe

Rachel Garner

By Rachel Garner

I’m coming in late to this conversation because I wanted to take a lot of time to read and listen. I’ve watched the videos, listened to the news reports, read eyewitness accounts, and read responses by or spoken to zookeepers, exhibit designers, primatologists, attorneys, and dangerous animal response team members. Here is what I have for you: the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo was a tragedy. Once the child was in the moat, what had to happen could not have been prevented. Actions need to be taken on all sides to ensure that such a perfect storm of a bad situation can never happen again. I am glad the child is alive and I grieve with the zoo staff for the loss of their beloved and rare companion. I do not believe in continuing to point fingers and lay blame - those who deserve it are well aware at this point, and while it is natural and human to seek vengeance and justice it does no good to protect future children and future gorillas. So, with that said, let’s talk about what happened.

On the event:

Here is the best sequence of events I can piece together from eye-witness reports. The boy involved had mentioned he wanted to get into the water with the gorillas. His mother said no, but was also responsible for several other young children at the time. Another woman present at the scene noticed the boy after he had “flopped through over the fence” according to her social media post, and was crawling so quickly through the bushes towards the moat that the woman and her husband weren’t able to grab him. The mom, who had been taking a photo when her son left her side, was looking for him and was heard calling for him around when he went over the edge of the moat.

The Dangerous Animal Response Team (DART) - a fixture of any AZA accredited facility’s plan for any situation involving a dangerous animal - attempted to coax Harambe out of the exhibit. All three female gorillas on exhibit shifted out easily, but Harambe was unwilling to leave. As seen on the videos spread around the internet, over about the next ten minutes Harambe became agitated – quite possibly exacerbated by the noise from the panicked crowd – and began dragging the boy through the water of the moat by his leg and throwing him around. At times he stopped and seemed to pick the boy up, examining him, before rushing off again. He eventually climbed back up into the exhibit out of the moat, bringing the boy with him. The DART team made the hard call at that point to shoot Harambe to save the child’s life, and when the kill shot was taken, the child was held between the silverback’s legs.

On the choice to kill:

Nobody is happy with the DART team’s decision, but those intimately knowledgeable of ape behavior and management understand why it had to occur.

Gorillas are often considered the gentlest of the great apes, but they’re still capable of intense displays of aggression with very little provocation. They’re considered highly dangerous animals in the internal zoo classification system - on par with big cats and bears - and are always worked with in protective contact situations. They’re highly protective of their territory and their group and use their extreme strength and size to challenge any threat. Silverbacks deal with stress by strutting and displaying their strength - often by dragging vegetation, rocks, or other animals around.  

In the videos, we see Harambe standing over the child in the corner of the moat. He takes off suddenly, dragging the child across the moat by his leg before standing over him again. He picks him up carefully, examines him, repositions him... and then grabs him again for the next drag. The behaviors Harambe is displaying towards the child are not affiliative actions, they’re displays of agitation that are familiar to any veteran primate keeper. Just as wild their wild counterparts, the intimidation / threat behaviors of captive gorillas often involve dragging and throwing large branches or exhibit fixtures around to make noise and show off their strength. Harambe is obviously agitated, and it’s likely that it was exacerbated by the noise and intensity of the crowd. So he’s not trying to help the kid when he repositions him – he’s just getting a better grip.

A hard thing to say here is that, to Harambe, it’s likely the child in his exhibit was more a novel stimulus than something he felt any goodwill towards. Despite seemingly misguided claims from Franz deWaal and Jane Goodall (whose statements to that end have people all over the world shaking their heads), Harambe is not protecting the child. He’s not trying to kill him, either - if he was, the boy would have been dead in an instant. But that doesn’t mean the kid was safe. To Harambe, the child was a novelty - basically new enrichment - and then becomes useful for his displays as the screaming crowd sets him on edge. At this point, there’s no way to separate the kid from Harambe without risking serious injury to the child - he is not going to give up the most interesting thing to ever fall into his exhibit, and certainly not after being worked up into a frenzy by the reaction of the visitors.

Tranquilizing Harambe was never a viable option, unfortunately. It’s a really hard thing to accept. The sad news is that tranquilizers don’t work like they do in the movies – the animal never just slumps over, immediately asleep. The drugs take 10-15 minutes to work, and the efficacy of a dose is easily modified by stress or adrenaline. There’s a good chance that even if they did dose Harambe with a tranquilizer, it might not have worked completely - at which point you have to guess and use more and risk killing the animal.

Even if the DART team was able to dose Harambe correctly for his excited physiological state, being darted often elicits a violent reaction from animals. To some degree, this is a reaction to the pain and general unpleasantness associated with previous incidents of darting (normally vet visits). Another, less known fact is that the second stage of most anesthesia drugs taking effect is a ‘excitation’ phase – animals often become more animated for an incredibly short period before it begins to work. The zoo couldn’t risk Harambe hurting the child more as the drugs kicked in.

Another important factor to consider is that the DART team didn’t know if the child had internal injuries from either his fall from a height into a shallow concrete moat, or from his treatment at Harambe’s hands. It’s possible that their choice to shoot Harambe was influenced by the length of time it would take to reach and treat the child if they did not. 

On the controversy: 

When a tragedy like this occurs, it’s hard for people to not ask who is to blame. There aren’t any clear answers, the ensuing debates are getting increasingly nasty. 

At first, everyone started crying negligence on the part of the mother. Some zoo staff certainly feel that way, considering how much of their working hours are spent forcing guests to follow the clearly stated safety regulations. Parents of small children, though, know how easy it is for a moment’s inattention to turn into something horrible. We don’t really know enough to say how long it took the child to get through the barriers while his mother was taking a photo. The Cincinnati police are reviewing the situation and the family and have stated that they’ll determine if charges should be brought against the mother in due time. 

Meanwhile, the USDA and AZA are investigating the Cincinnati Zoo side fo things. While the AZA investigation doesn’t have any legal standing, the USDA is finding out if the facility was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act at the time the tragedy occurred. 


The question of if the zoo is at fault for not having a more secure exhibit is a really hard one to answer. The photo above is from the Cincinnati Zoo’s Facebook page, showing the fence that the child crossed. It is not a huge barrier to an adult, but could easily be considered a substantial barrier (even without the hedge) to a child young too young to consciously understand why crossing fences is not okay. 

Now that this has occurred, there’s an obvious flaw in the safety of the exhibit that needs to be rectified- but let’s talk history. Gorilla World at the Cincinnati Zoo opened in 1978 and was one of the first exhibits of it’s kind. Moated exhibits became extremely popular in the late 20th century as public opinion pushed for exhibits where guests could see animals in naturalistic habitats without visual reminders of their confinement, e.g., fences, and can still be seen at many facilities across the country. This Gorilla World yard passed all USDA inspections for 38 years and the design adhered to all federal regulations for the containment of dangerous animals (such as primary and secondary containment). Millions of guests have passed in front of the exhibit in the four decades it has existed and there has never before been an incident. This leaves the Cincinnati zoo in a hard spot they did it by the book, and according to zoo safety rules nobody should ever go past that barrier  – but now it’s happened, and it ended horribly. The design of the enclosure definitely needs to be re-assessed - even if something works 99.99% of the time, if it fails horribly 0.01% it needs to be looked at. Nobody disagrees on that. Hindsight is always 20/20, though, and it’s hard to say if this should have been able to be prevented from ever happening. 

On what to take away:

There are a lot of conversations that this incident has engendered. None of them are easy. Some require zoological facilities to re-examine their exhibits for problem spots. Some require people to really consider what is appropriate behavior in a zoo and why the rules and regulations that people so often ignore exist. Everybode needs to do a little bit of navel-gazing so we can all move forward from here. 

Harambe turned 17 the day before he was shot. He was a valuable ambassador for a highly endangered species, named after a rallying cry in Swahili: ‘pull together’. We can look for vengeance after this tragedy, or we can learn from it. We need to do the latter to protect the children and the gorillas of the future. 

A friend said it best in a private conversation:

“As a former zookeeper, and a curator, exhibit designer, I have plenty of background on the subject. I know how dumb people can be around zoo exhibits. And I'm also extremely aware of zoo safety, almost to a fault. Fact is, given the things that have been happening in zoos the past few years, significant precautions need to be taken around exhibits (...) [and] there is a place where aesthetics and safety can coexist. People ARE dumb, but it's more about ignorance than intentional stupidity. We as zoo professionals know exactly what our animals are capable of, but the general public really does not. We tune into to zoo tragedies every time they happen, but I'm betting most people still have no idea of any of the recent events over the past decade. It really is the duty of zoos to be safe and not rely on the assumption that visitors know how to be safe around very dangerous animals.  (...) That doesn't make it okay, nor should we all blow it off as a simple mistake - it was a terrible mistake with tragic consequences. But rushing to a conclusion based on our emotions leads to witch hunts and mob justice. That won't bring Harambe back, nor will it even make things better for other zoo residents. It's just us looking to place blame and project our pain onto others. Instead, we should reassess zoo safety protocols, exhibit design, visitor traffic flow, and safety communication/education in zoos. That's what we should be taking from all the recent tragedies in zoos - turning them into something positive to make zoos better, safer places.”