Ever since a 4-year-old child fell into a silverback gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend and officials made the call to shoot 17-year-old, 450-pound Harambe to death instead of tranquilizing him, the public discourse has been quite predictable.
Whether it’s PETA calling for all zoos to be boycotted, others calling for the child to be removed from the custody of the parents, whose past is being scrutinized, or people damning the human race, these things distract from the thing that matters most: the zoo took the correct course of action in a crisis scenario, and animal experts agree.
Regardless of who was at fault for the situation, and finding out who was at fault is very much on the table now, the right thing was done to prevent serious and lasting harm to the child. That’s the most important thing.
After the Cincinnati Zoo made the choice to kill the endangered animal, its Director Thane Maynard said people who take issue with the decision, and there have been plenty, “don’t understand silverback gorillas.”
“That child’s life was in danger. People who question that don’t understand you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla — this is a dangerous animal. Looking back, we’d make the same decision. The child is safe,” Maynard said.
Wildlife expert Jack Hanna, who you may remember from his show “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” publicly defended the zoo.
In an interview with 10TV, Hanna asked “Did you see how [the gorilla] jerked [the child]? The minute I saw the video when he got jerked like that I said ‘Oh God, I don’t want to see the rest of this.’ I knew what would happen.”
“I’ll bet my life on this, that child would not be here today,” he added, regarding the zoo’s course of action. Hanna repeated this thoughts to CBS News, saying he agreed “1,000 percent” with the decision.
Hanna went on to say that he worried using a tranquilizer would take too long to have an effect and could aggravate the gorilla into dangerous behavior.
Yet another animal expert, this time Jeff Corwin, agreed with that assessment.
“In some situations, depending on what the medication is, it can take upward of 10 to 15 minutes,” he told CNN. “It may take multiple shots.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, decidedly not an expert in the wildlife field, was for some reason asked about the zoo incident. He offered the right response.
“It was amazing because there were moments with the gorilla, the way he held that child, it was almost like a mother holding a baby. Looked so beautiful and calm and there were moments where it looked pretty dangerous,” he said.
“I don’t think they had a choice. I mean, probably they didn’t have a choice,” he continued.
We can also know the zoo made the right decision both by observing what was going on in the water and by acknowledging simple facts about gorillas.
As far as what was happening in the water goes, Harambe clearly dragged the child around like a rag doll.
At minimum, gorillas are considered six times stronger than strong adult men, so the fact that he was able to drag the child may have been a sign of raw strength rather than aggression. Clearly, the zoo didn’t want to take that chance.
One witness even said the gorilla threw the child “10 feet in the air, and I saw him land on his back. It was a mess.”
This doesn’t sound like a negotiable situation, but there are people out there who believe zookeepers should have negotiated with the gorilla and plied him with food.
“When gorilla or other apes have things they shouldn’t have, keepers will negotiate with them, bring food, their favorite treats, pineapple or some kind of fruit that they don’t know and negotiate with them,” Chairman of the Gorilla Organization Ian Redmond told CNN. “I don’t know if that was tried or people thought there was too much danger but it does seem very unfortunate that a lethal shot was required.”
All you need to do to get the sense that silverback gorilla behavior can be unpredictable when humans meddle with their environments is watch a few clips on YouTube.
Dragging a grown man
Running into a mirror
Making Steve Irwin’s heart skip a beat
Charging at humans who were waving hello
It should be noted that there was a similar incident 20 years ago where a child slipped into the habitat of a female gorilla named Binti Jua. The gorilla famously comforted the child.
The point is: you just don’t know what the gorilla is going to do.
Much of the outcry over the gorilla’s death resembles the public response to the death of Cecil the Lion at the hands of Dentist Walter Palmer, and many people have noticed.
When people had to make a decision, they chose the life of a small human over the life of an endangered gorilla.
What would people be saying now if the child ended up dead? Probably, the same things: ban all zoos, send the parents to prison. But thank goodness no one involved has to live with the kind of regret the worst case scenario would have left with them forever.