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Shooting the Gorilla Printer friendly page Print This
By Barry Kent MacKay, Wildlife Ontario
Thursday, Jun 2, 2016

Editor's Note:
For those of you unaware, a child managed to fall into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday, May 29. Zookeepers shot and killed the gorilla in what must have been both a panicked reaction and a sensible precaution. Zoo officials will certainly defend their actions; whether right nor wrong, they are surely devastated by the event. But none of this - the fall, the shooting, or the caged gorilla should ever have happened.

As of this morning, police are not recommending any charges in the case although a County Prosecutor has agreed to review the evidence. The boy sustained some minor injuries and is expected to recover fully - at least physically. Mental trauma does not go away so easily. Well-wishers have offered money to the boy's family but the family has stated they will not accept it and suggest that if people wish to help they should make financial donations to the Cincinnati Zoo - in the gorilla's name (Harambe). 

My friend Barry wrote this. It was published Monday by an online wildlife/environmentalist group in which we are both active. I think he nails this squarely.

Barry is the Canadian representative of Born Free USA, as well as a director of Animal Alliance of Canada, Zoocheck, and Species Survival Network. He is an experienced naturalist, conservationist and animal protectionist, a bird artist and illustrator, and has written and illustrated for numerous publications.
- prh, ed.

If we want to see the Eiffel Tower we have to go to Paris. There is no way to see the Sphinx without a trip to Egypt. There should be no way to see a gorilla but via a trip to Africa.

This is a HUGELY difficult/complex issue, but there is ample guilt to go around. The two individuals most hurt…one traumatized, the other killed…are the two most innocent -- the child and the gorilla, not the ones responsible for what happened to either.

It’s true that in other such incidents (there was one in Jersey) where a child entered a gorilla zoo enclosure, the gorillas not only posed no threat, but acted protectively. It is true that they do not attack and hurt people in the wild.

But it is also true that this little kid fell some fifteen feet, and one clip I’ve seen does show the gorilla starting to jerk him away forcefully, just before vanishing out of frame. According to accounts the gorilla was rough with the child, and given the incredible strength of these animals and whatever injuries the boy may have suffered, serious injury or death, however unintended, could have occurred. We’ll never know.

The zoo had a protocol in place, and their first responsibility in law would be to protect the public. Thus, we have the untenable situation where the higher priority is to the child, and the vast majority of humankind would agree. But that meant violating what they claim is also a high priority, protecting the animals for whom they are responsible. Of course they do so very selectively at best, often putting their “surplus” animals into “exotic animal” auctions where they can go to the highest bidder, including game farms to be shot by hunters.

And that’s my argument against zoos. They are masters, or would-be masters, of illusion. They have claimed that this specific tragedy is compounded because gorillas are endangered. But what they don’t admit is that all the gorillas in all the zoos in all the world are not going to prevent the species from becoming extinct, because the likelihood of any such gorilla or its offspring in years and decades or even centuries to come ever being released to the wild or ever contributing to the survival of the species in the wild, is nil. What we’d have, at most, is a domesticated large primate with no viable habitat left. The fate of the species lies in the countries where it occurs.

Similarly, the argument that the gorilla-in-the-zoo represents some sort of “ambassador” to convince people to protect them in the wild is bereft of evidence. On the contrary, if anything, it provides a false sense of security (zoos are “saving” gorillas from extinction”) and the complexity of their needs in the wild (hey…give them a spare tire and food and a mate and they’re happy). What threatens gorilla survival in their homelands is tied up with international politics and commerce and is far, far beyond what most of us can do anything about. And while an argument CAN be made, I think, that the early record of gorillas in captivity helped to inform us that they are not carnivorous killers, it was really the experiences of people like Dian Fossey and Ian Redmond (who I’m proud to count as a friend) who awakened us to the true nature of these fellow-primates, and the exposure given to them by organizations like National Geographic. 

All that said, there should have been no way that little guy could have slipped through the barrier and taken that nasty fall, which itself put him at risk. Good grief…three-year-olds are curious and notoriously unaware of danger, so if we are going to accommodate them, we must make sure they are safe. This “accident” ought never to have been able to have happened.

And while I understand the pressures of parenting small children in a public place, the parent/care-givers also are responsible. 

Visit any public zoo this summer, and you will see that essentially they are used as playgrounds for young children, often un-supervised since there is a sense of safety. There is little or no learning going on, little or no conservation…it is strictly entertainment…amusement parks with animals encaged. 

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