Last weekend, Cincinnati Zoo officials shot and killed a 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe after an unattended child tumbled into his enclosure. The killing sparked public outrage. Some people have blamed zoo officials for their decision to kill Harambe. Others have blamed the child’s mother for failing to adequately watch her young boy.
I learned about Harambe’s death while returning from Kenya, where I work with my medical and legal colleagues to end impunity for sexual violence in areas of conflict and unrest. As a result of my work in the area of human rights, I spend a lot of time reflecting on culpability, accountability, and justice.
When I learned about Harambe’s death, I asked myself, “Who is culpable for his death? What would justice for Harambe look like? How could similar tragedies be prevented?”
Though zoo officials should be investigated for their decision to kill Harambe, and the question of whether the parents adequately watched their son should be addressed, sadly, many of us are directly or indirectly culpable for Harambe’s death.
Normally, gorillas like Harambe live in the forests of central Africa. They nest with their mothers until they learn to build their own beds. As they grow older, they learn to organize their days much like we do – dividing their time between foraging for food, traveling, working, socializing, and resting. Like other great apes – including humans and chimpanzees – gorillas develop strong bonds and cultural norms, grieve the loss of loved ones, and reflect on the past and the future. They tend to avoid conflict and are generally peaceful beings. In captivity, gorillas have been taught to communicate with humans using sign language.
Unfortunately, gorillas are increasingly under threat in their natural habitats because of human activities such as hunting, kidnapping and trade, logging and oil exploration, and transmission of infectious diseases such as Ebola. Gorillas and the courageous rangers who protect them are even under threat in safeguarded areas – such as in the Virunga National Park in Central Africa. More than 100 Virunga park rangers have been killed in the line of duty over the past 20 years while defending gorillas and other animals. Despite the rangers’ efforts, gorillas continue to be killed. In 2008, after a famous family of gorillas was killed there, National Geographic asked a question that is similar to the question being asked about Harambe: “Who murdered the Virunga gorillas?”
Gorillas also suffer in captivity, including in modern zoos, which purport to promote conservation and biodiversity. Contact with humans increases their risk for infectious diseases. The lack of freedom, choice, a normal social life, and opportunities to live a typical life together lead to mental disorders including compulsive behaviors, increased aggression, and social withdrawal.
Zoos have been around for hundreds of years – even imprisoning and exploiting humans by placing them on exhibit. Today, countless numbers of animals are kept as collections – living exhibits of sensitive beings with disrupted lives and tragic deaths. Contrary to claims by corporate officials at zoos, there is no compelling evidence that zoos promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors.
As many scientists – including primatologist Jane Goodall – have pointed out, there is no evidence Harambe intended to harm the young boy who slipped into Harambe’s only home. On the contrary, Harambe appeared to be trying to help the child. As gorilla expert Ian Redmond pointed out, many alternative approaches could have been used to resolve the situation – particularly since Harambe had a reasoning mind.
Humans have a long history of holding animals accountable for human mistakes. But we cannot continue to hold other animals accountable while also refusing to acknowledge their need to function as autonomous beings.
We can never fully understand the minds of other animals. But we do know they are capable of suffering when they are prevented from living as they are meant to.
The tragic killing of Harambe offers us an opportunity to examine whether we will continue the outdated practice of collecting sensitive beings so they can be gawked at for minutes of our lives – and years of theirs. But we must also take the opportunity to ask ourselves another set of important, related questions: How we are culpable for the lives and deaths of other animals – in circuses, farms, laboratories, and forests around the world? And what can we do to better hold ourselves accountable, toward justice for all?