The Value of Animal Life

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I find myself particularly angry and depressed, arguably too depressed, over the unfortunate death of Harambe. Harambe was a 17-year old, Western Lowland Gorilla, who was shot and killed after a 4 year old baby entered his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo a few days ago.

Western lowland gorillas are magnificent animals. They roam the rain forests throughout Central Africa, covering territories of 2-40 square kilometers. They live in troops of up to 30 animals, led by a single older, silverback (exactly what it sounds like) male. In general, lowland gorillas are not aggressive animals; however, they can be threatening and dangerous if they themselves are threatened. Due to their shy nature, estimating numbers of gorillas in the wild is difficult. The most optimistic estimates of western lowland gorillas in the wild is around 100,000.  Hunting and poaching, habitat destruction from the timber industry, and disease (including Ebola virus) have destroyed approximately 60% of the gorilla population over the last 25 years. Gorillas are extremely intelligent animals. They can feel and can even be taught to express emotions via sign language. Koko the gorilla was said to have a sign language vocabulary of over 1000 words.

And yes, Gorillas even grieve. One of the most heart-wrenching passages of Jane Goodall’s open letter, published in response to the incident, was her concern of whether or not the other gorillas in the enclosure were allowed to see Harambe’s  body as this grieving process seems to be very important to the species. Let us also not forget that these animals did not choose to be in this enclosure, or any enclosure, for that matter. They are there for us to gawk at.  Many  zoos are, of course, involved with conservation efforts and raise money for those efforts to justify the caging of these wild animals, but that is no comfort to the animal inside the cage.

I remain haunted by the video that was released. My first impression from this video was of this positively majestic creature, standing over and so obviously protecting this young, vulnerable child.  In fact, noted gorilla expert, Jane Goodall, stated that her initial instinct was that the gorilla was acting much like the female gorilla that had previously rescued a child in a similar situation in a Chicago exhibit. There is no denying that as Harambe became agitated, his behavior changed; and that since his behavior became unpredictable at best, the decision to put the gorilla down ”had to be made”. Noted zoologist Jack Hannah fully agreed with the decision and basically said that a choice between an animal life and a human life is not really a choice.

Hanna’s response actually surprised and disturbed me. Is a human life always more valuable than an animal’s life? What percentage of people would agree with that statement? What percentage of people would agree with that statement if Jeffrey Dahmer had fallen into that gorilla pit?   Bron Taylor, in his piece for the Huffington post, argues that if one starts from an ethical claim that humanity ought not drive other species off the planet and understand the value of an individual organism to the viability of its species, an endangered animal such as Harambe could be considered more valuable than a human life, which is anything but endangered. Who gets to decide which human life is more valuable than which animal life?   Is there just a simple hierarchy of humans above all other species or do the other animals also have a hierarchy of importance?  What if a lion got into the gorilla exhibit?  Who then gets destroyed?

The argument of “what if it was your child?” is certainly not lost on me. I have three beautiful children, and there is no creature on earth that I would spare to save their lives. I guess I am just having difficulty accepting that the only humane decision was a bad one for Harambe; even so, I am happy for the mother who got her child back and for the little boy whose life was saved; but I am also sad for the surviving members of Harambe’s troop. And I am most sad for the life that Harambe was forced to live and for the way in which his life so abruptly ended.






  1. Chris Shea says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful remarks about a heartbreaking event. Your perspective is valuable and a much needed voice. Grief can be unbearable for the death of animals.

  2. Sally D Slichter says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your post. I care for a (neutered and spayed) feral colony of 50 cats. I have done so for 18 years and my love for animals, in general, is now only exceeded by my respect for their intelligence and compassion for each other.

    We lost our way when we began believing we have a right to cage (no matter the size or condition) animals for our amusement.

    I, too, am happy for the mother and the child, but I grieve terribly for the victim in this event and for all of his companions who must feel a terrible loss.

    Thank you for the post.

  3. MJ says:

    I think the whole situation is absolutely devastating. The loss of Hambre is also a loss to conservation, education, his humans, and his troop. However, I think that in this life accidents do happen. At 4 years old, it isn’t particularly developmentally appropriate to expect a child to understand this magnitude of cause and effect, danger, and death. To a child, the zoo is made to be fun and friendly and they are taught to see animals as friends, so in a 4 year old’s mind why would an animal not be that way up close?
    The whole thing is horrible. The death of a magnificent animal, the hate towards the boy’s parents, the fact that it happened at all, everything… it’s all horrible.
    The alternative headline would also be horrible since it would most likely involve both their deaths.
    Euthanizing Hambre was not done because of malicious intent or because it would benefit the zoo. The boy or his family had no intention of any of that happening on an outing that they probably were really looking forward to and excited about.
    Accidents happen. All we can do is evaluate the situation and see what can be done to stop it from happening again. Nothing we do in life is without risk, but when something goes wrong it doesn’t always mean someone is to blame.
    This child’s life was absolutely worth saving. This child’s family does not deserve the attacks they are receiving and the criminal charges they might face. The zoo keepers have lost a dear friend and do not deserve the hate they are being bombarded with.
    The whole thing sucks. It’s awful. Sometimes awful things happen and people think it will somehow make the situation better if they can place the blame somewhere.
    Millions of people visit zoos all over the country every year without incident. Statistically something will happen eventually. All the experts can do is learn from the situation and see if it can be handled differently if it happens again.
    I think as a country what we can take from this is that we can be sad about awful things and not resort to forming a mob about it. No one can say they’ve never had their child wander out of sight for a split second. No one can say their child has never gotten hurt on their watch. Life is full of too many variables.
    I’m not going to play into the hateful mentality circulating the Internet. This was a horrible horrible accident. This wasn’t some intoxicated adult who decided to jump in and antagonize the animals. This was a child who’s life was absolutely worth saving. Do I wish both of them could have been spared? Of course. I do trust the specialists at this zoo and I trust their choice. They know the animals they care for best which also gives them the heart wrenching responsibility of making decisions such as this.

  4. Julie Richards says:

    Thank you for your post. I disagree with the decision to kill Harambe.

    • Dolores says:

      Julie- would you still be of the same opinion if the child( family member) was yours and he was in imminent danger of being badly hurt, or losing his life? If that was the case- you would then watch your child being killed by that gorilla??
      That child deserved to live, as did the gorilla, but if a choice had to be made as to who would live, and who would die, I think there’s no question as to the choice..the zoo did the right thing..

  5. Jo says:

    If humans (many parents especially) weren’t so ignorant, self-absorbed, and careless incidents like this could be prevented. So as long as you have a generation of parents who refuse to adequately supervise, educate, and discipline their children is as long as you will have a debate over the value of human versus animal life. This situation is not so different than those cases you hear about dogs biting kids (usually after they were taunted, abused, or provoked) and the decision is made to put them down, a decision usually made hastily and without all the facts because ohhhh it’s a kid and our society is so overly obsessed with kids and so child-centric that their lives are automatically deemed more valuable.

  6. Jes says:

    Thank you for this post. This one does indeed seem to have hit many of us hard. I realize that the zookeepers felt the urgent need to act quickly. But I can’t help but wonder if a better outcome would have been possible if the first action would have been to remove the shrieking hysterical crowd. The change in the gorilla’s body language and behavior during the video as the decibel level rose spoke volumes to me. As for accidents, that this could have been so easily prevented – like most accidents – is what is truly heartbreaking. Hopefully, many lessons will be learned.

  7. debbi fox says:

    I totally agree with all that you said, Dr. Foley. It really did look like he was trying to protect the little boy until all the screaming and yelling started. I feel that the animals should be better protected in their enclosures. The boy should not have been able to get in, for this I blame the zoo. I also feel that the mother was at fault for not paying closer attention to these children.
    I am not a zoo lover, I feel these beautiful animals should be allowed to roam free in their own environment. I would not like to live my life in a cage with people yelling and staring at me. This was a horrible incident and we can only hope that lessons have been learned.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Why couldn’t they shoot him with a tranquilizer? In this day and age we should have something that can disable an animal without killing them.
    And honestly, I like animals more than I like most people.

  9. Paul Raven says:

    I understand and share the sadness of the gorilla’s death but find the proposition that animal life and human life are equivalent troublesome. They are not equivalent. This does not warrant killing animals without cause or in any way disrespecting animal life, it is merely a moral assertion. Also, animals do not have rights, as a right implies an obligation. Animals do not have obligations. Again, this does not mean humans have a “right” or permission to abuse animals; to the contrary.

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