Lori Gruen is a philosophy professor and the coordinator of animal studies at Wesleyan University and was editor of the anthology “The Ethics of Captivity.”
The death of Harambe, the endangered lowland gorilla shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 4-year-old crawled through a barrier and fell into his enclosure, was a deeply traumatizing event — for the child, for the surviving gorillas, for the witnesses, for the animal care staff and for those of us sensitive to the plight of captive animals. In the wake of such a tragedy, it seems someone must be blamed, but the fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction. The real culprits are zoos.
Many in the animal protection community suggest that Harambe wasn’t a threat to the boy. Gorillas tend not to be aggressive, and if Harambe wanted to hurt the child, the 450-pound gorilla could have done so immediately, not after interacting with this curious creature for 10 minutes. But these people weren’t on the scene.
Did members of the gorilla care staff do enough to try to separate Harambe from the child? If they could lure the female gorillas away, why not Harambe? Some activists are calling the killing of Harambe an act of cowardice by incompetent zoo employees. But members of the zoo care staff, and those who raised Harambe from infancy at another zoo, are devastated by what happened. Some staff may have argued against the hasty decision. We don’t yet know.
Others are arguing that the boy’s mother is to blame. How could she let her child fall into a wild-animal enclosure? Why didn’t she have control over her son? How long did she let her child wander unsupervised such that he had time to get through the barriers? In a post on social media, a woman who identified herself as the child’s mother didn’t express remorse for the death of Harambe, just praise to God and thanks to zoo authorities for saving her son. Some people are suggesting that she be deemed legally negligent and charged with causing the death of an endangered animal. But she is just one among millions of mothers who bring their children to zoos. This was a terrible accident, but she is not alone in teaching children to view wild animals as amusement.
For me, the real question is not who to blame, but why anyone was in a situation in which they had to make a choice between the life of a human child and the life of an endangered teenage gorilla in the first place. Keeping wild animals in captivity is fraught with problems. This tragic choice arose only because we keep animals in zoos.
Though killing is less common at U.S. zoos compared with the regular practice of “culling” at European ones, zoos are nonetheless places that cause death. Harambe’s life was cut short intentionally and directly, but for many zoo animals, simply being in captivity shortens their lives. We know this is true for whales in SeaWorld. Elephants, too, die prematurely in zoos. So why have zoos?
One of the reasons often given is that zoos protect and conserve endangered wild animals. A few zoos do fund conservation efforts — the Cincinnati Zoo is one of them. These efforts are laudable, and I would hope that in light of the tragedy the Cincinnati Zoo will spend more to help protect lowland gorillas. Their habitat, as is true for so many wild animals, is under threat.
But captive animals, especially large mammals born in captivity, like Harambe, cannot be “returned to the wild.” These sensitive, smart, long-lived gorillas are destined to remain confined, never to experience the freedom of the wild. They are, at best, symbols meant to represent their wild counterparts. But these symbols are distortions, created in an effort to amuse zoo-goers. Zoos warp our understanding of these wonderful beings and perpetuate the notion that they are here for our purposes.
If we really need someone to blame, maybe we should look at our society, which supports these types of institutions of captivity. If zoos were more like sanctuaries, places where captive animals can live out their lives free from screaming crowds and dangers not of their own making, no one would have had to decide to kill Harambe. Sanctuaries are places where the well-being of animals is of primary concern and animals are treated with respect. Four-year-olds and their families could see gorillas in Imax theaters, where their curiosity could be safely satisfied and gorillas could live with dignity, in peace.