It was very difficult to ignore the recent video of the toddler that fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and I have seen a number of press releases, articles and opinions about the unfortunate incident, which sadly ended in the death of Harambe, a 17 year old critically endangered gorilla. This week Katie and I want to share our perspectives both as moms, and individually as a pediatrician and a veterinarian. Katie will share her blog with you tomorrow! This story has not come without controversy, and many discussions and debates over children and animal rights. I, by no means, claim to have the right opinion on the issue. I am just here to offer another one of the many million opinions, and perhaps some insight into my thoughts about Harambe, as a veterinarian and mom.
From anyone’s standpoint, whether a mom, animal lover or veterinarian, the incident is extremely difficult to watch. My heart breaks for the young boy and his family, Harambe and his zoo family, and those affected by such a difficult scenario. I can’t even imagine the turmoil and conflict faced by the individuals who were intimately involved.
I hope this doesn’t leave you in disbelief coming from a veterinarian, but I believe the Cincinnati Zoo made the right decision. This does not suggest that I am not terribly saddened and horrified that this beautiful and endangered species was forced to give his life for something that was not his fault. Many people are trying to interpret Harambe’s behavior at the time, and whether he was showing signs of aggression or protecting the child. For instance, Harambe was holding the child’s hand, or standing over the child as if to be protecting him. Whether you are a specialist in silverback male gorilla behavior, or have dedicated your career to studying these animals, it is extremely difficult to assess what Harambe was thinking based on his actions, and it is impossible to predict his future actions. In veterinary school, I was trained extensively on all animals. We went through the different rotations working one on one with small animals (cats and dogs), large animals (horses and “food” animals), and wildlife. The first lesson we were taught for any animal was that they are all unpredictable, and that you must be alert, stay respectful, and always be ready for an unpredictable attack. I practice this lesson in my animal hospital daily.
Animals, especially wildlife, react and interact using instinct, nature, and for the natural protection of themselves and their families. At any second an animal’s mindset can switch from calm and relaxed to protect and attack and unfortunately humans cannot entirely predict what triggers this behavior. This is why you see as many animal attacks as you do. Animals that have never shown any signs of aggression, or have been raised by humans since being newborns can attack randomly and suddenly.
We don’t know if Harambe would have killed the child and I am glad we did not have to find out. A human child suddenly invaded his territory. The chances are that he would have killed the boy. Its possible Harambe would have become agitated or more defensive if only sedated or shot but not killed. The decision to kill Harambe had nothing to do with valuing human life more than animal life, but everything to do with making the correct and appropriate decision in a difficult emergency situation. The response team at the Cincinnati Zoo deserves more sympathy. People who dedicate their lives to animals, whether they be veterinarians, zoo keepers, technicians, or emergency teams usually do it because they absolutely love and respect animals. The Cincinnati Zoo saved a child’s life by making the difficult decision to say goodbye to a beloved and impressive animal that they cared for, and likely grew to love and adore.
I am absolutely in awe with, adore, and respect all animals, especially wildlife. I graduated undergraduate with a bachelors degree in wildlife ecology and conservation and continue to support and donate to wildlife research and conservation projects around the world. To lose a beautiful, majestic, and critically endangered animal to no fault of his own is nothing less than a tragedy. I hope people will walk away from this incident with less judgment, more respect for animals, and an understanding of their capabilities and unpredictable nature. There is a major need for more clear and obvious boundaries when it comes to the care and protection of all animals.