Background on the Killing of Harambe

Harambe the gorilla
Harambe was killed by a gunshot to the head. Cincinnati Zoo, Rueters

On May 28, 2016, an employee at the Cincinatti Zoo and Botanical Garden shot and killed a silver-back gorilla named Harambe after a small child wandered from his mother and fell into Harambe’s habitat. The gorilla, who was alarmed by the child, a sudden interruption to his normally routine life in captivity, became agitated. Zoo officials chose to kill the gorilla before he could harm the child. The boy survived, suffering minor injuries and a concussion.

The Debate

Could there have been a better way to handle this situation, given how quickly the events transpired? This became the central question of a nationwide debate that transpired on social media and in news outlets, after video of the incident was published and circulated on Youtube. Many felt that the zoo could have handled the situation differently and believed that the killing of the animal was cruel and unnecessary, especially considering the silver-backed gorilla’s status as a critically endangered species. Petitions circulated on Facebook asking for the mother, a childcare worker, to be arrested for child endangerment. One petition garnered almost 200,000 signatures.

The incident raised questions of zoo maintenance, security, and standards of care. It even reignited a public debate over the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.

Investigations of the Incident

The Cincinnati Police Department investigated the incident but decided not to press charges against the mother, despite widespread public support for a negligence charge. The USDA also investigated the zoo, which had been cited previously on unrelated charges, including for security concerns in the polar bear habitat. As of August 2016, no charges have been filed.

Notable Responses

The debate over Harambe’s death was widespread, even reaching as high up as then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who stated that it was “too bad there wasn’t another way.” Many public figures blamed the zookeepers, arguing that had the gorilla been given just a few more moments, he would have handed the child off to humans as other gorillas living in captivity have done. Others asked why a tranquilizer bullet could not have been used. Said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States,

“The killing of Harambe saddened the nation, because this magnificent creature did not place himself into this captive setting and did nothing wrong at any stage of this incident.”

Others, including zookeeper Jack Hanna and legendary primatologist and animal rights activist Jane Goodall, defended the zoo’s decision. Although Goodall originally stated that it seemed in the video that Harambe was trying to protect the child, she later clarified her position that the zookeepers did not have a choice. “When people come into contact with wild animals, life and death decisions sometimes have to be made,” she said.

Significance to Animal Rights Movement

Like the killing of Cecil the Lion by an American dentist one year prior, the widespread public outcry over Harambe’s death was viewed as a significant win for the animal rights movement, despite its tragic catalyst. That these issues became such high-profile stories, covered by The New York Times, CNN, and other major outlets and discussed on social media broadly, marks a change in the way the public engages with animal rights stories in general.