Weighing in on the Cincinnati Zoo debate

Weighing in on the Cincinnati Zoo debate

Danielle Zukowski

Cincinnati Zoo has bombarded the media with the death of gorilla Harambe, a nearly household name. His death occurred after a child fell into the gorilla’s enclosure. The Internet is aflame with arguments for and against this shooting. Some question if killing was the only option. Debate regarding whether the gorilla was attacking or protecting is center stage in this conflict. In a statement from the zoo, the director, Thayne Maynard, explained that “…tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option. Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger.” Some predict that without this action, the child would have died and zoos would have a significantly worse publicity crisis.

Harambe’s endangerment further contributes to the morality of the shooting. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species “exceptionally high levels of hunting and disease-induced mortality” have caused the western lowland gorilla’s population to “decline by more than 60% alone over the last 20-25 years” therefore making this gorilla critically endangered. Some proponents place this fact on the backburner due to feelings of superiority. Hence saying that these advocates judge the threatened gorilla’s death a necessary sacrifice for the safety of the child.

Much of the time it seems to slip our minds that we are animals too! We actually share a lot with Harambe. Looking at the IUCN taxonomy, we share the same kingdom: Animalia, the same phylum: Chordata, the same class: Mammalia, the same order: Primates, and the same family: Homindae. The only classifications that differ are our genus and our species: Homo sapiens. We’re not as distinct as we may first believe.

In addition, according to Dr, Richard Durbin, a computational biologist, “gorillas are our second-closest living relatives.” In collaboration with over 60 other international researchers in a 5-year study of 20,962 genes from a western lowland gorilla, it was found that gorilla’s DNA is only 1.75% different from humans’ (see published results in the journal Nature). Further research is being conducted with additional gorillas but this data establishes a nearly 98% similarity to gorillas! The child and the gorilla were essentially only 2% different, which I, for one, find extremely fascinating.

As per usual, the media explosion has also spiraled discussions of accountability. Who is to blame? The zoo? The parents? The child? The gorilla? Fingers point in all directions. Should the enclosure be more secure? Should children not be allowed in zoos until a certain age? Should animals even be captive in zoos? Many have expressed hatred toward the mother specifically but she does receive some support. Questions have also arisen surrounding why the Internet is so focused on this death as opposed to thousands of other critically endangered animals. With this viral buzz, everyone seems to place responsibility in a different corner.

However, I think the placing fault does little to change the accident that occurred but in the future, I hope that this tragedy can serve as a learning opportunity and remain an isolated event. Zoo policies are likely to be reevaluated and hopefully this event has encouraged many to learn more about the life forms that we share this planet with. The Earth is rich in biodiversity and to place superiority in humans is quite close-minded. Our planet existed just fine long before humans and is capable without our contribution, which unfortunately has been quite negative.