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.