Will Harambe’s Death Be The Tipping Point?

Yes, it is a tragedy.  One of just 765 Western Lowland Gorillas in zoos worldwide has been needlessly killed.

I say needlessly because although, perhaps, the zoo authorities were faced with few options when confronted by the possibility of a child dying in the gorilla enclosure, the child should never have been there in the first place and, some would argue, neither should the gorilla.

Wise after the event, it is always possible to speculate as to whether the gorilla could have been lured away,  as was successfully done in April 2014 when seven chimps escaped from their enclosure at the Kansas City Zoo and keepers using “treats” enticed the animals back.  No-one was hurt.  One could say that the gorilla could have been tranquilised.  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It is impossible to predict exactly what would have happened once the dart struck home.  Would it have enraged a powerful 400 pound animal with fatal consequences?  Or would the gorilla have accidentally collapsed on and injured or drowned the child as the drug took effect?  Who knows.

But some things seem clear:  The whole basis on which zoos are founded, the placing of human visitors in unrealistically close proximity to potentially dangerous animals relies on there being an assumption on the part of the visitors that it is a safe thing to do.  Otherwise all parents would be issued with harnesses to restrict and control their children throughout the visit.  Some people suggest that the fault lies with the parents –  maybe so, in part.  Others say the zoo did not adequately ensure that barriers, specifically designed to keep wild animals in and human beings out, were not fit for purpose.
Now, predictably, there will be reviews of safety procedures and, doubtless, there will be petitions calling for the parents/the zoo/the licensing agency/the American Zoo Association/the City authorities to be held to account, and who am I to say those are not without justification.

However, there is a wider issue that needs debating here.  Gorillas, like many other species are under enormous pressure in the wild. There are approximately 175,000 Western Lowland gorillas left. There may be fewer than 4,000 Eastern Lowland gorillas clinging to survival in war-torn eastern DRC and there are nearly 1,000 Mountain gorillas making a modest come-back from the brink of extinction (none in zoos). Surely captive breeding in the safe and secure (and mind-numbingly unnatural) captive facilities offered by the world’s zoos is the conservation safety net these species need.  Surely after spending hundreds of millions of dollars (Cincinnati Zoo’s plans for a new gorilla enclosure announced in September last year, will cost at least US$12 million) zoos are making a significant contribution to the survival of the species not least through captive breeding programmes that lead to the re-introduction of gorilla families to the wild.

Not the case.

The number of Western Lowland gorillas that have ever been returned to the wild in recent memory numbers approximately 50, almost exclusively from the zoo collections run by Damian Aspinall in Kent, England.

So, are zoos delivering a conservation dividend?  Are they providing the kind of educational resources that will inspire the naturalists of the future?  Are they a realistic hedge against extinction for more than a  handful of iconic species, largely selected on the basis of the oooh and aaaah factor?

The answer is emphatically no.

The global zoo industry, of which Cincinnati and others are leading members, consumes billions of dollars every year while the conservation movement is crying out for a fraction of that kind of funding to address the habitat and species crisis that now confronts tens of thousands of species.  The very fact that in interviews following the Cincinnati incident, the gorillas has been described as being ‘not blood thirsty’ indicates a Victorian misunderstanding of the true nature of gorillas, despite the work of Dian Fossey, Sir David Attenborough, Ian Redmond and others who have painstakingly tried to address the stereotypic image of gorillas as some kind of half-human monster and the personification of King Kong.

The fundamental question is: are zoos fit for purpose or are they past their sell-by date?  I conclude that they are out of time but then that is just my opinion. Quite reasonably, you may ask, will things ever change?  Born Free Foundation and I have been constant and consistent critics of zoos for over 30 years.  We have been called a “nine-day wonder”.  We have been described as a broken record, repeating the same message but I believe that history will prove us to be right. And change can happen if we, the people, want it badly enough.

Five years ago, the captive marine mammal display industry, as represented in many people’s minds by SeaWorld, seemed invincible.  Today, following the making of one film, Blackfish, SeaWorld has changed beyond all recognition.  No more performances with trainers in the pool; a share price in free-fall; attendance down; profits down; a new CEO fighting to restore some semblance of respectability and now, in partnership with The Humane Society of the USA, SeaWorld  has made an announcement of such profundity that many of us never thought we would hear it in our lifetime:  That the current killer whales they hold will be the last.  There will be no more breeding. There will be no more imports from other facilities.  There will be no more orca in captivity.

Is it too great a leap of faith to imagine that, just as the death of Cecil galvanised the world to reconsider the justification and morality of trophy hunting, so the death of Harambe will cause a seismic readjustment of public attitudes to the lifetime incarceration of millions of animals for little more than costly and, indeed, wasteful public entertainment, a form of exploitation that risks the welfare of the animals concerned and the safety of visitors?

Harambe’s death is not an isolated incident.  According to Born Free USA, since 1990, 15 zoo incidents have resulted in loss of human life and at least 110 injuries.  Keepers have died, members of the public have died, numerous animals have escaped and, time after time, customers have gained access to supposedly secure enclosures where they have suffered injury.

A serious debate about our relationship with wild animals and the natural world is long-overdue.  It is predicated on our common desire to protect and conserve life on Earth and to motivate and inspire human kind.  As part of that debate we must determine whether the zoo experiment, the public display of exotic animals to an increasingly urbanised human society, has any further role to play or whether, in a world that by the end of this century will be jammed-packed with 11 billion human beings, we can make space for wildlife in the wild.

Blogging off


13 Responses to “Will Harambe’s Death Be The Tipping Point?”

  1. Lucy Allsop Says:

    Hi Will, this is a very thoughtful and intelligent piece of writing.

  2. Sarah Raybould Says:

    Thank you for that balanced, informative and insightful piece on the death of Harambe and the wider issue of wild animals in captivity. It is ironic that whilst the subject of zoos and Harambe are so inextricably linked; yours is one of the few articles I have read on Harambe’s death which does, in fact, not only acknowledge this connection but seeks to address the debate with facts and logic, as well as heartfelt committment and truth.
    As someone who has always loved animals,I grew up with the names of George Adamson and
    David Attenborough as inspirations and Elsa’s story as an example of the important bond between people, animals and the world we share and inhabit. I also grew up with zoos and circuses, in an era where we did not see the injustice and cruelty of parading wild animals for our entertainment. It’s hard to imagine now, with the greater knowledge we have, of these animals, how I could see them like this without recognising how wrong it was, and is, to imprison animals in such a way.
    These days, with the immense capacity we have to educate people on conservation and the accessibility that better transport provides to animals in their natural habitat, there really is no excuse for this information not to be pushed out there, for everyone. With-holding the truth and compounding the lies is nothing short of criminal. It is sad that in this instant world we live in, it still takes so long for necessary change to become accepted and welcomed. However, as you mentioned with Sea World, change can and must happen.
    Keep getting the message out there and making us rethink our acceptance of out-dated,obsolete practices. Hopefully, Harambe’s death can speed up our recognition of what is right and consolidate our resolve to actually do something about it sooner, rather than later, which could well be too late, for some.
    Thanks, Will

  3. Lin Says:

    Thank you for calling out the fact zoos have not contributed to the conservation work so sorely needed.

    If the money spent in zoos had truly been ear marked for the conservation work they claim to do, then we wouldn’t be needing Born Free or other organisations to help endangered species from disappearing from this planet.

    On a purely ethical level, I believe sanctuaries (and their purpose) is more aligned to the animals’ interests than zoos.

  4. Derek West Says:

    I endorse your sentiments on zoos,unfortunately the inevitable rise in the human population means less resources and space for the creatures that share our world.

    We need much more initiative from world governments to protect and enhance the natural world,this is not going to happen while we constantly strive for economic growth.

    Kind regards,Derek West.

  5. Alessandra Ferrari Says:

    Zoos should not exist at all, it is as simple as that. Living beings are not tourist attractions or something that offer a lucrative way of making money. I blame the scores of unaware and ignorant humans that keep on visiting these places, let alone giving their children the idea that zoos are fun and there is nothing wrong with them.

  6. elisabeth guss Says:

    Harambe’s death was a tragedy. We know that gorillas are largely gentle when it comes to children. At the worst he should have been darted. It was a panicky response and too sad for words. Unfortunately I doubt that anything has been learned. Yes Cecil was a tipping point but the ‘hunters’ who don’t even hunt are back at it again because money talks far more effectively than anything else and officials pander to acquire it despite alternative ways to appreciate wildlife such as photographic trips. Just the other day a man too overweight to even walk very far sat beside me on a park bench and told me he keeps his guns in London and comes several times a year to see his son then continues traveling around the world to ‘hunt’ big game. These ‘hunts’ are canned of course and are despicable and should be banned everywhere but money corrupts and sadly I doubt that the killing will stop despite the harm it does to wildlife conservation. Every animal has its role to play within the family and the ‘hunters’ naturally want to kill the biggest game, the protectors and progenitors of the family, after which chaos ensues. So sad.

  7. robert dowling Says:

    the gorillas, esp. silverbacks are magnificent. but remember they have 98pct of our dna, and we can not make room for them in this world (wild or sanctuary), forget any other venue. would they make room for us if the facts were reversed, I would venture yes, should we not reciprocate. also remember if they are all gone some day, its only us, then what. look ahead people.

  8. sue higgins Says:

    yes it was a sad day when the world lost Harambe’s and it makes you think that if a child or sometimes its been an adult can get into these ‘dens’ then surely an animal can just as easily get out !I personally think that Harambe was trying to help the child.

    Zoo’s have definitely finished, thankfully because of more awareness from sites like these, but its not getting the message out there to the people that don’t go to these sites because they see animals differently and unfortunately for food and that’s a concern because they are now producing the next generation of meat eaters, their children and so it goes on !

    the most brilliant idea of all was when Russia had suggested a ‘safe corridor’ for all wildlife,and where hopefully the animals cannot be poached or skinned alive and that way the animals can be properly monitored and hopefully not become extinct as they ALL belong here on this planet to do their own work for our ecosystem …..and to be hunted was NOT one of them !

  9. Pauline Coupe Says:

    Harambe’s death is a disaster, very upsetting and disturbing. I cannot understand why Social Services have not asked for the parents to be prosecuted and investigated for neglect of the child. However more importantly is the death of the gorilla. I agree with you that he should not be in the zoo either, but it would take years of effort to close all zoos etc. And I cannot see that happening in my lifetime unfortunately. My tears will not help Harambe now but similar things seem to be happening more and more with no respect or concern for the animals, in other words “oh it’s alright we will just get another one from the wild to replace it”. Human beings never fail to disgust me where harming animals are concerned. I have not heard how the other gorillas at that Zoo have coped with his death but I imagine they are distraught as are we. If Born Free can intervene or make any difference whatsoever I support them wholeheartedly.
    RIP Harambe xxx

  10. Virginia Woolf Says:

    The death of Harambe was very upsetting and so totally unnecessary in my view, particularly as the incident seemed to suggest negligence on the part of the mother who evidently wasn’t watching her youngster closely enough given how far he managed to get into the gorilla’s enclosure.

    I was impressed by primatologist, Ian Redmond’s comments about the situation, and the role of zoos for intelligent, sentient creatures, on this BBC interview link:


    It seems to me that there now needs to be open and frank debate about the role of zoos in today’s world particularly as far too many of them are putting profits before proper care.

    Founder New Zealanders for Endangered Wildlife

  11. Barbara Gleeson-Cook Says:

    I absolutely agree with Will`s comments about animals being kept in zoo`s. I understand the need for conservation but feel this should be done in the country of birth and habitat. Working with overseas governments to provide sanctuary and reserves. I know I would much rather see a wildlife film showing animals in their natural environment rather than seeing them in the flesh but caged and quite often looking pitifully sad.

  12. Sharon Branch Says:

    Have to admit that when I first heard this tragic news, was how the hell was this allowed to happen, where were the parents and what safety procedures had the zoo implemented but more importantly than that was Harambe’s death should never have happened if he was not shut up in a cage in the first place! I was taken to zoos as a child, now as an adult, I refuse to visit them but support conservation work being done for animals in their natural environment. I have had the privilege of seeing gorillas in Uganda and that magical experience has never left me. That was priceless. You can never have that same encounter with an animal locked up.

  13. Simone Cull Says:

    Hi Will

    I blame the parents as where were they when their child was climbing into the enclosure. I blame the zookeepers for allowing the enclosure to be penetrated. Harambe should never have been killed. He was in that in enclosure by no choice of his own to entertain humans. I think it was an atrocious act it was a murderous act and this is why I do not believe in zoos.
    I thought your points on conservation & the money made of animals in zoos was such an important point. The amount of species we have lost and are losing to habitat loss and destruction not to mention poaching & hunting is devastating and I wonder when & how it can all be stopped? It all needs to stop!
    I just wanted to say your words are so true and written so well. I thank you for such an intelligent and compassionate piece. It’s so important for people who do appreciate and cherish our animal relatives to feel that we are not alone.

    Thank you