Vet Ethics: Harambe’s death: zooming in on zoos

The shooting of a 17-year-old male gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo after a child fell into his enclosure provoked a huge international reaction. The reaction was comparable to previous outpourings of anger and sadness following the killing of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter, and the killing of Marius the young giraffe by the Copenhagen zoo because he was surplus to breeding requirements and not required for display purposes.
In fact, Harambe’s killing generated a variety of emotions and responses. Obviously, people were upset at the loss of the gorilla’s life. Part of this response may have been bound up with the fact that gorillas are endangered. But another key aspect of the response was that gorillas are highly intelligent and emotional animals. Someone who knew Harambe said that he was always thinking. Animals like Harambe, we were reminded, have unique personalities. His killing was called a tragedy and even likened to homicide by some people.
Did the zoo overreact in shooting the gorilla? Would a professional police unit have shot Harambe if he was a human being – say, a large and powerful man who had failed to respond to reasonable attempts to encourage him to walk away from a child whom he was, for an unclear reason, dragging around like a doll? The police unit may well have done so. But then, of course, there would be an impartial inquiry set up to establish whether the shooting was, as it appeared to be, justified.
Numerous contributors to social media blamed the parents for inadequate supervision of the young boy. The child, as we know, was concussed from being dragged around the enclosure. We don’t yet know whether he will suffer any longer term psychological trauma, either from the experience itself or from the vehement public reaction. It is probably true that closer parental attention to the child, especially if he had expressed a wish to enter the gorilla exhibit, may have prevented the incident, and thus any harm to the child or gorilla.
But without all the relevant facts, judging parental culpability at the time was difficult or impossible. One point to make, however, is that visitors to zoos do not typically expect their children to be able to enter the enclosures of large animals. Some feel that the zoo was at fault for not ensuring the public’s and the animals’ safety by having more secure enclosures. They have a point.
Visiting a city zoo is a very different experience from observing animals in the wild. As I understand it, the experience of seeing gorillas in the wild comes with minimum age requirements and carefully orchestrated, time-limited encounters. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that some free-living animals can on occasion be dangerous to us (as humans can be dangerous to them). That kind of vivid awareness of wild animals’ freedom to behave as they wish is not part and parcel of a visit to a city zoo. Animals in city zoos are confined in relatively small enclosures. So zoo visitors might naturally expect that zoos have taken care of such risks.
This brings us to another reaction to the incident. This reaction relates to a more controversial way in which zoos are thought to be at fault. The well-known scientist Mark Bekoff argued that zoos, contrary to their claims, have not yet established that their existence effectively promotes behavioral change amongst patrons in regards to wildlife conservation and protection. While zoos themselves have input into conservation, they are also places of entertainment. Bekoff wrote:

“Being a zoo-ed animal, Harmabe lost all of his freedoms – the freedoms to make choices about how he was to live, what he would eat, when he would sleep and go to the bathroom, where he would roam, and if he were to become a father. While some might say Harmabe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks…[W]ould you allow your dog to be put in a zoo? If not, then why Harambe and millions of other individuals who languish behind bars?”

In a similar vein, philosopher Lori Gruen wrote:

“These sensitive, smart, long-lived gorillas are destined to remain confined, never to experience the freedom of the wild. They are, at best, symbols meant to represent their wild counterparts. But these symbols are distortions, created in an effort to amuse zoo-goers. Zoos warp our understanding of these wonderful beings and perpetuate the notion that they are here for our purposes.”

The case of Harambe raised moral questions about zoos with particular sharpness. Their situation is clearly complex. On the one hand, many zoos are not places of pure amusement and spectacle. They are, in that sense, different from animal circuses. Some zoos have a genuine interest in conservation. On the other hand, there is an aspect of zoos that is about using confined animals for entertainment. To this extent, zoos are different from animal rescue sanctuaries. And zoos are more different still from organized encounters with animals in the wild – animals who, compared to many zoo animals, enjoy free and unconfined lives. The case of Harambe raised the question of whether the particular way zoos use animals can be justified. What do you think?

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