Every so often, an individual animal comes along, whose plight opens up a big debate concerning how humans react to, interfere with, or ‘manage’ animal welfare.
Last year, it was Cecil the lion; the year before, Marius the giraffe; this week, it’s Harambe the silverback gorilla. For those who missed the story of Harambe (and I suspect you didn’t), the 17-year-old male silverback was shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo this weekend after a child entered his enclosure, crawling through bushes and falling 15 feet into the gorilla’s moat.
Online footage showed the gorilla moving the young boy through the enclosure’s moat — though there are varying reports as to the nature of this (some news outlets are reporting he dragged the boy through the water, while other suggest he was ‘protecting’ the boy). Of course, without being there, it’s difficult to speculate.
The animal response team tasked with dealing with the situation chose to destroy the gorilla, supported by Cincinnati Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, who confirmed the boy was not under attack, but felt it a ‘life threatening situation’ where the gorilla was ‘agitated’, ‘disoriented’, and ‘behaving erratically’.
Perhaps the reason that so many have hit out at the decision has something to do with the previous publicity that gorilla-human interactions have received. By coincidence, the last article I posted on this blog referenced the gorilla group who famously interacted with Sir David Attenborough.
But these weren’t the only gorillas to win the public’s heart, and show a softer side to these strong and powerful beings. Made popular by the rise of YouTube, the 1986 incident in which a five-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo has been viewed literally millions of times!
The gorilla in question, Jambo, is seen gently investigating and apparently comforting the boy:
Fast forward 10 years, to a three-year-old boy falling into the Western Lowland Gorilla Pit at the Brookfield Zoo. (Seems like rather a lot of gorilla enclosures have proven to be a little too accessible over the years!).
This 1996 footage shows a female gorilla named Binti Jua approach the child, lift him into her arms, and carry him to an access entrance where staff could get to him.
One of the world’s leading gorilla experts, Ian Redmond OBE, posted online immediately following the incident:
My immediate response to the killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, is a deep sense of regret and sadness. Watching the shaky mobile phone video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36407643, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the BBC News website, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing… but the video does not show the whole incident so I am not in a position to judge. I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision but there were other possible outcomes. In two other incidents where children have fallen into zoo gorilla enclosures (in Jersey and Chicago) neither the gorillas nor the children died.
Aside from the ethical issues of keeping apes in captivity, the key question is: how is it possible – yet again – for a child to gain access to any zoo enclosure? Especially when zoos are primarily a family attraction?
To me, this is indeed a huge safety issue (even more so to the animals in the zoo’s so-called ‘care’!) and one that, had the public safety (particularly that of a child) been put at risk elsewhere in the tourism and entertainment industry (I’m thinking theme parks), would have caused mass criticism, a very public court battle and calls to close the place (just look at the bad press Alton Towers received when guests were injured on a rollercoaster ride).
But zoos are so entwined with education that they’re publicly branded as existing ‘primarily for children’s benefit’ and as such, it’s hard to separate them. This is an issue I’ve discussed before, challenging the notion that zoos are ‘a vital tool’ in getting the next generation interested in nature (for those who’d like a more in depth view of the modern day issues with zoos — and probably a more balanced view — I would recommend the BBC2 documentary: Should We Close Our Zoos?)
But whether their PR depends on the link with education or not, it’s worth questioning how the security of zoos keeps getting breached? Just last month alone, a Santiago Metropolitan Zoo in Chile killed two of its lions after a man scaled the fence, removed his clothes (which reportedly contained a suicide note) and goaded the animals to attack him (23rd May 2016). Just the day before, a man entered the lion enclosure at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India, allegedly to ‘shake hands with the lions‘. Though the man and the lions survived the encounter, he was reported to have been intoxicated at the time.
All this comes after the undeniable, global coverage of Blackfish; the documentary about SeaWorld’s Tilikum the killer whale (or orca), known for having ended the lives of three people, including a man who trespassed on SeaWorld Orlando’s property, apparently evading security to enter the orca tank. When will these locations that house captive animals be recognised as potentially dangerous to the public? It seems that massive security failings are occurring across the globe, and have been for a long time?!
6 ways to appreciate gorillas, without visiting the zoo:
How about some alternatives then, that won’t inadvertently put your family or the lives of animals at risk? Here are my top 5 ways to enjoy watching, feeling close to, and even supporting the conservation of gorillas!
- Check out the BBC documentary; Gorilla Family & Me, for which cameraman and filmmaker Gordon Buchanan travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo to spend time with a rare family of Grauer’s gorillas.You’ll get to follow the story of Chimanuka and Mugaruka. For more information on the show and future broadcasts, click here.
- Adopt a gorilla through Born Free Foundation. If you enjoyed the above mentioned documentary, and want to continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story, you can adopt the pair and receive a personalised adoption certificate, a photo of the gorillas, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. You can even get a cuddly toy gorilla, to help satisfy the need to give the creatures a cuddle! To find out how, click here.
- Take virtual tour of the gorillas habitats with vEcotourism.org! Continuing on the story of the Chimanuka group, vEcotours offer an immersive, 360-degree virtual tour of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Rwanda, where Chimanuka and his family live. They also feature a tour of the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group’s home on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi; this features the last living gorilla from the group that met Sir David Attenborough all those years ago! To take a tour, click here.
- View a GoGoGorilla art piece. Now, this one might require a bit more work, but seek, and ye shall find! These guys are mostly still planted around businesses and tourist locations in Norwich, and I had a whale of time discovering them all when they were used as an art trail around the city, and then auctioned off to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation and local charity Break. I’m pretty sure this guy still resides at the Norwich City Football Club ground!
- Buy a gorilla print. Many thanks to an incredible digital artist, Danielle Adams, who supported my World of Wildlife art exhibition last year, for creating this beautiful piece of gorilla art in memory of Harambe. Prints of this artwork will soon be available, so keep an eye out on her website, www.danielleadamsart.com.
- Dine with a gorilla table guest at the Rainforest Café! I absolutely love this place, and it offers a great chance to feel like your in a real forest surrounded by animals… except, they’re all animatronic! But hey, at least you know it means none are going to get hurt! And if any children wander off to go and touch a gorilla, they’re not going to get hurt either! To visit the Rainforest Cafe, click here.