By now you have probably heard about the crisis at the Cincinnati Zoo this week: a 4-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, and responding to what became a life-threatening situation, zoo personnel fatally shot a 17-year-old silverback gorilla named Harambe. The story quickly made international headlines and the zoo’s decision was deemed controversial. Since then, much discussion has broken out online focusing primarily on criticism of the child’s mother, from those who filed a petition urging a Child Protective Services investigation to a slurry of shaming tweets:
If you leave your kid in a car you go to jail, if you let your kid fall into a Gorilla Enclosure u should too! #TeamDl
— DL Hughley (@RealDLHughley) May 30, 2016
— Tim Kennedy (@TimKennedyMMA) May 31, 2016
— Crystal Hefner Ⓥ (@crystalhefner) May 31, 2016
I have sifted through many articles and tweets and opinion pieces on this story, and here’s what I think: some tragedies are blameless. I see people trying their best to find someone to blame for this event and the angry internet mob mainly settling against a mother that they judge to be negligent. However, some will say the zoo personnel are to blame. Some will blame the whole institution of zoos. The reality is that as long as zoos exist and families continue to attend them, there will be kids running amok.
Coming at this from a conservation biology perspective, I see zoos as necessary and important places not only for the conservation of endangered species, but as a way to connect with the general public on conservation issues. I think what we need to do going forward (and what zoos are always working on) is work to make zoos safe and enjoyable for both the animals and the people. The only position I will place any support behind on this issue is that of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), a group that has filed a complaint to improve the physical barriers of the enclosure. I support this idea with no malice or blame towards the Cincinnati Zoo, and I fully believe the zoo’s director Thane Maynard when he says that the barriers currently in place “exceed any required protocols.” Based on this incident however, I think it’s important that we consider that the current protocols may not be strict enough. With an animal as strong and large as a silverback gorilla, maybe the enclosure simply cannot be open at the top at all. If there are solutions available that better protect the animals and the people from one another, they should be considered. Maybe it won’t be as easy to view the gorillas anymore, and that would be a shame, but substantially less of a shame than being forced to shoot dead an individual who represents one of only 175, 000 of his species remaining in the wild.