How to Not Kill the Next Harmabe.


Gorillas aren’t people. However much they look like us, they are not us.

And that means they won’t always understand the noises we make, and we won’t always understand the actions they take.

I know a bit about animal behaviour – I started out learning about canine and equine behaviour, because I worked with horses and dogs, and moved on to study feline behaviour, because I lived with cats. Then it was lupine (wolf) behaviour, because I’ve always been fascinated by wolves, which led on to the behaviour of the great apes.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but it was clear that what was going on while the child was in Harambe’s enclosure was protection – the gorilla, frightened by the humans screaming (screaming is what gorillas do when they’re about to attack, by the way), took steps to prevent harm coming to the child.  Yes, silverback gorillas can, do, and have killed young gorillas that weren’t their own offspring – but, had Harambe intended to do this, the boy would have been dead in seconds. Gorillas are literally that powerful.

Gorillas – in common with many predators – don’t like water. It’s fine for drinking and cooling off, but it’s not usually somewhere they’ll spend a lot of time.  For Harmabe to enter the moat, and stay there long enough to pull the boy out, means he had put that child before himself – something humans could benefit from learning how to do.

“But he was dragging him!” Gorillas are not humans. Their “hands” don’t work the same way ours do. We get confused, because they look so much like us, but the act of picking up a child, natural to us, is not natural to a gorilla – mainly because they spend most of their time walking on all fours, and so will typically pick up their young one-handed, to keep their balance. This gorilla was picking up a young boy the way he would have picked up one of his own offspring. He meant him no harm.

Large animals, apes particularly, don’t respond well to tranquilisers – sadly, a tranquilising shot would have probably resulted in the boy’s death, as, in the few minutes it takes to take effect, Harambe would have become extremely agitated and distressed – something which never ends well in an animal of that size and strength.

Did Harambe, since he couldn’t be safely tranquilised, need to be shot?

No.  What needed to happen was for the screaming humans to be moved out of the way – out of sight, out of earshot – and for an experienced keeper known to Harambe to enter the enclosure, and wait at a distance while the gorilla got the boy to safety – recognising his keeper, Harambe would have most likely offered the boy straight to him, the way I’ve seen apes in captivity offer a favoured toy, or some food.

What needs to happen to ensure that no beautiful animal, already critically endangered, already forced to live out its life in protective confinement because humans can’t be trusted, should ever have to be killed because of human misunderstanding again is a difficult question, more so since humans can’t be trusted enough to move into a future without zoos, where animals could live out their lives in their natural, wild habitats.

While human greed and stupidity forces us to have zoos, so that humans can be taught why shooting anything that moves isn’t a good idea, perhaps we need to restrict direct access to the enclosures to small groups of those over 16, who can (mostly) be trusted to behave sensibly – six to eight people at a time, accompanied by a knowledgeable keeper, close enough for photographs, to really see the animals, and to have them, their lives, and their needs explained. To ask questions. To work towards understanding.

For everyone else, perhaps a “zoo visit” should involve nothing more than several large rooms, themed for various habitats – mountains, rainforests, savannahs, oceans – with live-feeds from well-designed, roomy, comfortable, stimulating enclosures playing out over the walls,interactive “learn more” consoles,  a gift shop and cafe.

The animals would be less stressed, those just looking for “an easy day out” would probably be perfectly satisfied, and those who genuinely respected animals, and wanted to see them up close, wanted to learn more, would have that option. People would probably get to see more of the animals, more of their natural behaviours, as, without a teeming mass of humans hollering in their faces, the animals would be more relaxed.



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