The death of 17-year-old gorilla Harambe who was shot after a child fell into its enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo earlier this week has shocked the world and sparked a fierce debate over the actions of the zoo.
Amateur footage of the incident showed the 200 kilogram silverback pulling and dragging a 4-year-old boy who had fallen 4.5 metres after climbing through a public barrier.
Although there have been previous incidences of children falling into zoo enclosures, this is the first time that a primate has been shot dead. Many have been angered by the zoo’s decision, while others have been horrified that the child was able to get into the enclosure in the first place.
A petition on Change.org calling for the “parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life” has gathered more than 250,000 supporters.
The zoo has defended its decision, saying “a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made by our Dangerous Animal Response Team”.
Primate expert Cyril Grueter from the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia says the decision by Cincinnati Zoo to shoot the primate was “drastic”. He believes the ape wasn’t attacking the child and could simply have been playing with him.
Grueter said it was uncommon for silverbacks to see a human being up close, and the gorilla could merely have been pulling the toddler around to examine it or find out if it was alive.
Silverbacks are generally gentle creatures but can turn extremely violent when there are intruders or if they perceive a threat.
In this instance, Grueter says that there was not much time for the zoo to contemplate but that they could have explored alternative measures.
One would have involved using tranquilisers, but this could have worsened the situation in case the gorilla fell onto the child. The second was to sit and wait, but this could have made people more worried since the mum could be heard shouting: “Mummy’s right here. Isaiah, be calm. Mummy loves you.”
Grueter said Harambe’s death would have a significant impact on the social dynamics of the group.
“Females will need to cope with the loss of their leader who holds an important social function at the centre of the gorilla group,” he told Business Insider.
“It will be difficult to find a new silverback from another zoo and one that the gorillas in the enclosure will accept. The individuals know each other very well and have spent years building a relationship.”
The incident is already affecting how zoos will respond to future incidents.
A Melbourne Zoo spokesperson said that “any organisation that operates in potentially dangerous situations has to be prepared and zoo staff are well trained to respond to a variety of potential emergencies”.
“In light of this incident, and the recent incident in South America (Santiago de Chile), we are once again reviewing our emergency procedures regarding these situations.”
Here’s a video of the incident below.
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