A zoo story that has gone so badly wrong

comment Updated: Jun 02, 2016 12:09 IST

The tragic events at the Cincinnati zoo last Saturday triggered an outpouring of emotion all over the world. Shock at the killing of a splendid young silverback, Harambe, mixed with relief that the fouryear-old boy came through it relatively unscathed. What lessons can we learn from such a sad turn of events?

Over the past 40 years I have spent hundreds of hours in the company of gorillas in their natural habitat. Most of them were habituated — used to human observers with an understanding of gorilla etiquette—but misunderstandings sometimes occur. I have been charged by a nervous female who thought I was too close to a member of her group; I have been walloped and bowled over by boisterous blackbacks, treating me just like one of the family, and on occasion, been on the receiving end of defensive silverbacks giving their awe-inspiring screaming charge. But I’ve never been hurt by a gorilla.

These were free-living gorillas, though. Harambe was born in captivity and raised by humans, but always with them in control — so it is unsurprising he didn’t know what to do when a small boy dropped into his enclosure. And given that the enclosure had crowds of agitated humans above him, it is not surprising the gorilla was stressed. When stressed, silverbacks strut and display their strength — often by dragging vegetation, group members or other objects — but this is not a forest with soft leaf-litter but a zoo enclosure of concrete and rock, so such behaviour carries more risk. In such circumstances, was Harambe’s death unavoidable?

My immediate response to the news was a deep sense of regret. In the video shown on the news websites, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, at one point held his hand, stood him up and examined his clothing. Clearly if a silverback wanted to kill a child, he could do so in an instant. But he didn’t.

I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff.

Gorillas have a reasoning mind and if someone known and trusted by Harambe had tried to calm him, perhaps offering something that would immediately attract his attention such as a tray of his favourite fruits, a negotiated settlement might have been possible.

If a softly-softly approach failed, a display of force could be the next option. Perhaps it would even be useful for zoo staff to be trained in the kind of non-lethal equipment used by police to restrain an aggressor without killing them?

Aside from the wider ethical issues of keeping apes in captivity, this tragic incident raises two key questions. How is it possible — yet again — for a child to gain such easy access to any zoo enclosure? Even if no gorillas were involved, surely public safety standards require that a child cannot get to a 15ft drop so easily. And second, will zoo professionals amend their emergency protocols to try non-lethal methods first? Then such tragic events might be avoided in the future.

The Guardian

First Published: Jun 02, 2016 12:09 IST