My kids love the zoo. They love to press their face up against the glass and watch the penguins swim by, play games of look-and-find in the animal habitats to see who can spot the red panda or the snow leopard first, and to see the baby animals. This past summer, we visited the baby gorilla at the Calgary Zoo. My daughter was so determined to see this baby gorilla that she didn’t even care that there was a 3-hour line up.
I’ve since tried to figure out what it was about the gorillas that captivated her so. Was it that they were funny? She giggles as they throw hay in the air and beats her chest, hoping they’ll do the same. Was it that their enclosure looked like fun to her? Maybe just because there was a baby? Or was it maybe that out of all the animals in the zoo, gorillas are most like us? That when she sees the baby breastfeeding or the family all climbing on the “playground” together, she sees us.
This is why the story of Harambe, the 17-year old gorilla at the Cincinnati zoo who was killed to protect a four-year old boy who fell in to his enclosure earlier this week, has had me feeling a little off-kilter.
If only you could bottle the Internet rage of all the suddenly appointed gorilla and parenting experts this week, we’d have energy for years to come.
I think the sum of all the moving parts is that a lot of mistakes were made, on all parts, that led to the loss of a beautiful and endangered animal. But, when all is said and done, I do think that the zoo made the right decision.
Let’s take away all the discussion of what led up to the boy getting in to the enclosure and just deal with the fact that he did. When the zoo officials who had to decide what to do showed up, the situation was this: There was a young child who was sitting in a cage with a 400-lb gorilla who could kill him or seriously harm him with just one move. The rest of the gorillas quickly complied with the keepers and were removed from the cage, but Harambe did not. He stayed with the boy, alternating between seeming protective of him and dragging him through water, grass and up rock faces while onlookers screamed and agitated the situation further.
That’s what they had to work with.
I don’t doubt for a second that they already had all the contingency plans in place. That they had considered what would happen if someone got in to the enclosure and how they would react, based on the animals that they know. That the keepers tried to reason with Harambe from where it was safe to do so. That they seriously considered the risks and benefits of using a tranquilizer dart versus a bullet. That they had an expert right there watching the behavior of the gorilla to decide what the safest course of action was.
In the end, they had to make a hard call and they chose to preserve human life. They chose a bullet over a tranquilizer because of the time it would take for it to take effect; because of the likelihood that it would agitate a very large and potentially aggressive animal in an already stressful situation. Even animal experts, like Jack Hanna, have said that they made the right choice. And now they’ll live with it and mourn Karambe.
At first, I honestly questioned the necessity of killing the animal. But then I saw the videos. There are some when the gorilla just stands, seemingly protectively, over the child. Those are fine—a little unnerving as it is also how I’ve seen an animal stand possessively over its dinner, but at least the child seemed safe. But then the dragging started. If you’ve seen the video, you will know the look on my face as I watched this young child get dragged through water and up a rock face.
In that moment, if it was my child, there would have been nothing you could have done to save that animal. I’m pretty sure it would have taken an armada to hold me back. And I’m also certain that if the child had died because the zoo had hesitated, the rage of the internet would be directed very differently.
Was the gorilla wrong? No, I would guess it was pretty natural behavior. Were the parents neglectful? Maybe. I’d guess distracted might be the better word. Was the security barricade enough? Many argue that it worked for nearly four decades so it is, but I would argue that if a four-year old can navigate through it and end up in the gorilla enclosure in the time that his parents were looking elsewhere, it might need work. I mean, my four-year old is smart and fast and does things that make my head spin, but the reality is that she can’t open a jar of peanut butter. If a four year old can get in, anyone can with determination.
Should the parents be held responsible? Honestly, I think yes. In some way, shape or form, they should have to address the major loss that their family caused. I don’t think it should be in the form of criminal (or murder) charges, but there should be more consequence than having to issue an apologetic statement. There’s a lesson here. Though, maybe the barrage of hate they’re enduring is punishment enough.
The reality at the end of the day was that it was a tragic and terrible situation that no one could have anticipated and was likely not going to have a good ending either way. It’s done, and we need to move forward and learn from it.
I’m simply taking it as a reminder to never underestimate my kids.
Brianne Zwambag is a full-time boo-boo healer, snack artist, janitor, referee, master storyteller and child stylist in Fort St. John, who sometimes gets a chance to sit down and write about life, mommyhood and the issues that surround it.