Cincinnati Zoo – What went wrong?

harambeDid Harambe have to die?

Unless you’ve been living in isolation the last week, you probably couldn’t have missed the news about Harambe, the Gorilla who was fatally shot by staff at the Cincinnati Zoo, after a young kid ended up in his enclosure.

It seems like there’s only two sides. Either you think the mother was a worthless bitch, who wasn’t able to watch her kid, and that the Gorilla was killed needlessly. The other side seems to think “accidents happen” and kids are squirmy, and it’s the zoo’s fault for not having enclosures that could have prevented a kid from getting in.

Many people are also questioning why they used fatal force on Harambe, instead of a tranquilizer dart. The whole incident has also brought up a lot of debate about Zoo’s, with people claiming they’re cruel, and animals shouldn’t be imprisoned their whole life in cages.

PBZooToday is Memorial Day in the US, and Matt and I went to the Zoo. We went to the Palm Beach Zoo, which had it’s own death last month. This time though, it was a human who was killed, and the animal lived. A zookeeper was in the cage with a Malaysian Tiger, and something went wrong. They used a tranquilizer dart on the tiger, and the female zookeeper, Stacey Konwiser, was still alive when she was transported via helicopter to the hospital, but didn’t survive. They said she died of neck injuries. They haven’t identified publicly which tiger did the attack, and her husband, who is also a tiger keeper at the same zoo, has backed the decision to not name the tiger. They said Stacey wouldn’t want the tiger to be unfairly targeted. The zoo did state they it was zookeeper error that led to her death. The tiger lives on, but a human died. Many people questioned why they used a tranquilizer, and didn’t immediately shoot to kill. The zoo had to defend the decision to NOT kill the tiger.

Back to Cincinnati. It’s reported by observers that they heard the kid in question repeatedly state that he wanted to get inside the exhibit, and the mother told him he couldn’t. Apparently he really wanted in, because he then went under a rail, through wires and over a moat wall to get into the enclosure, according to the zoo. So it’s not like he just “fell in”, as some outlets are trying to say. I’m guessing this wasn’t a 3 second escapade, so at some point here, the mother is negligent. He stated his intentions, she dismissed it, but then didn’t keep the kid in check, and he managed to get inside the enclosure.

Now, many people are claiming that he shouldn’t have been able to get in. But going under a rail, through wires, and over a moat wall doesn’t sound like they’ve made it super easy. But here’s the way I understand it. Years ago, animals were kept in crappy little cell like cages, and it was like they were prisoners. Zoos have come a long way, and are doing their best to create beautiful environments, that seem like a natural habitat, and less like a prison. The enclosures are designed to keep animals in, not to keep humans out. Because, humans are supposed to be smarter than animals. Humans are supposed to enjoy observing the animals, and understand that although inside a zoo, that they are still wild animals at heart, and you’re not supposed to try to climb into their enclosure with them. Unless you’re suicidal, like the guy in Chile, who got two Lion’s killed, when he tried to commit death by big cat. The only deaths were that of a male and female Lion. The obviously mentally disturbed man was rescued.

So this kid, who was three or four years old, depending on the media outlet, got away from his parent who knew he wanted in. He gets through a fence, wires, moat wall, and then splashes into the actual moat surrounding the enclosure. At this point, Harambe goes to see who is intruding in his space. He seems to drag the kid around through the water a few times, and of course, people are worried the kid may drown. When the kid screams, Harambe helps the kid stand up. There’s all kinds of screaming and commotion coming from above, and you can hear the mother say “Mommy loves you” and I’m sure at this point Harambe is pretty freaked out. He moves the kid to another part of the moat, away from the commotion.

At some point, the zoo keepers move the female gorillas out of the enclosure, but Harambe doesn’t want to leave his new toy. People are freaking out, and the zoo keepers have to make a decision. Do they risk the kid being killed, or do they sacrifice Harambe? They can’t use a tranquilizer, because Harambe has the kid between his legs, and tranquilizers take several minutes to go into effect. While they do, you’ve got a startled 400 lb Gorilla holding on to a small child. He could freak out and snap the kid in two, or he could pass out peacefully, onto the kid, and kill him anyway. So they decide to save the human child. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision, but they didn’t really have time to mull it over. They sacrificed their gorilla to save a human.

The kid is pulled from the enclosure, and taken to the hospital, where he was found to have a concussion and some scrapes. No cuts, breaks or serious injuries. The mother then makes a post on FaceBook:

michelle gregg statement

So the mother says, Oops, accidents happen, but it’s ok, ’cause God protected him. At which point I lose all patience with her. Any sympathy I had, understanding that kids can be slippery little shits goes right out the window. Why didn’t her chosen deity not stop the kid from “falling” into the gorilla enclosure to start with, and how come he gets the praise the kid lived, and not the staff who had to make the decision to put down a member of their zoo? Maybe instead of thinking your invisible friend will watch over your kids, you need to start taking charge of that duty yourself. Remember, God helps those that helps themselves. – Meaning, protect your own damn kids.

So, the kid is fine. The mother thinks it’s not a big deal. No “sorry about your dead Gorilla”, or anything like that. Just a thanks to the imaginary guy in the sky.

So, whether the mother was negligent or not, the zoo pretty much did what they had to do. The kid, being a kid, doesn’t know better. (Although at that age, I’m pretty sure I knew better.) The Zoo loses a beloved animal, and now all the lawyers are rubbing their hands together, wondering who is going to sue who first. Should the mother be made to compensate the zoo, since she was negligent in keeping a handle on her kid, or is the Zoo at fault for letting the kid get in? So far, the zoo has managed to go 38 years without anyone else “falling in” to the enclosure, so I’m on the zoo’s side with this one.


So now we come to the question about whether zoos are necessary? Is it really a prison sentence for an animal to be in a zoo? Should animals be in the zoo, or should they be out in the wild?

There’s a few ways to look at this.  I kind of feel that growing up on television, I feel a sense of understanding. Growing up on TV is like growing up in a zoo. It’s loud, crazy, people are always watching you, and you’re confined to certain spaces.

Most zoos these days don’t hunt wild animals and transport them to the zoo to be imprisoned and put on display for the rest of their lives. Harambe for example was born in captivity, at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX. He was transferred to Cincinnati where it was hoped he would breed. Some animals are only not completely extinct because of zoos. The breeding programs, and protected environment, is the only thing keeping their species alive. Having been bred in captivity, these animals don’t know anything outside the zoo, and it could be argued that they don’t know what they’re missing.  Just like kids raised on reality TV, it’s the only thing they know, and they are relatively happy – just like Honey Boo Boo.

Other animals, like many of the ones we saw today at the Palm Beach Zoo were injured animals that were rescued, but could not be re-released into the wild, because they wouldn’t survive. Mardi, the white alligator lives at the zoo because he couldn’t live on his own.


Many of the birds were also kept there as exhibits because they wouldn’t make it if they were set free. hurt birds sign palm beach zoo owl

The monkeys were all on their own little islands, and many of them were species that were on the endangered lists. They are happily swinging from tree to tree, surrounded by lush vegetation, with a small river surrounding them. They are given food and shelter, and excellent veterinary care. Yes, some of them could be living in the wild, but if you’re living in a rainforest, where you’re being poached for your fur, or to be some rich persons pet, or having your home cut down for timber, are you really any better off?

Then there’s the people who argue that zoos don’t need to exist because you can learn about animals from books or the internet. Well, yes, you can read about an animal, or you can watch a documentary on TV, or see pictures on the internet. But it’s really not the same as seeing an animal in person. Not everyone has the funds/time/energy/ability to go to the remote places that some of these animals live in the wild. Yeah, it’d be amazing to go to China and see a panda bear in its natural habitat, or go to Costa Rica and see macaws and monkeys in the wild. I’d love to be on “I’m A Celebrity, Get me out of Here” and live with baboons in South Africa, but it’s not going to happen. For the majority of people, the only way they will ever see a real exotic animal is in a zoo. Which isn’t a bad thing. Some kids, especially inner city kids think that steak comes from the supermarket. They don’t connect meat coming from a cow. So what hope do they have of understanding elephants being poached for their tusks? Many conservationists started their love, and eventual protection of animals, with a visit to the zoo. They see a real life animal, and it touches something inside them. They hear the animal, watch it, feel a connection to it. That inspires people to care about animals in the wild. It helps some people make better decisions, whether they be as small as making sure to cut up their 6 pack rings so turtles don’t get stuck in them, to some CEO deciding not to harvest a rainforest because they know that a monkey is living there – a monkey they fell in love with at the zoo when they were a kid.

So while we all like to make a snap decision and tweet our anger when something tragic like this event happens, we need to understand that we weren’t there. We didn’t have to make a snap decision like the zoo management did. We didn’t have a plethora of kids with us like the mum did. We can’t shut down all zoos because of one incident. We can mourn the loss of Harambe. We can learn from the mistakes of the mother, and keep kids on leashes, or get a nanny or babysitter, or stay home from the zoo if you can’t control your kids. If you’re at the zoo and see some kid scaling a fence, reach out and stop them. You’re allowed to stop other people from making bad decisions. What if one of those people filming the whole thing had put down their camera and stopped the kid from getting into the exhibit to start with? We can donate to our local zoo, so they can create even better enclosures, and facilitate breeding programs that keep endangered animals alive. Direct your anger into something useful, not just generating internet memes that don’t solve anything. Oh, and if you insist on sending hate mail to Michelle Gregg, make sure you’ve got the right one. Some other poor woman with the same name is getting all kinds of threats. Most of all though, if you see stupid happening, stop it, before it ends up like this.

A monkey enclosure at the Palm Beach zoo. Just a small fence, and shallow moat. It's expected that stupid people won't try to enter the habitat.
A monkey enclosure at the Palm Beach zoo. Just a small fence, and shallow moat. It’s nice and open for the animals, and it’s expected that stupid people won’t try to enter the habitat.
Old school enclosure at the Palm Beach Zoo. The Koalas are kept in a small exhibit, behind glass. People can't get in, but it's not much fun for them.
Old school enclosure at the Palm Beach Zoo. The Koalas are kept in a small exhibit, behind glass. People can’t get in, but it’s not much fun for the animals.