Like many people, I have a mix feeling of incredulity and incredible sadness for what happened few days ago at the Cincinnati zoo and which led to executing Harambe the gorilla after an unattended 4-years child fell in the gorilla enclosure. At the root of all that is our relationship with wildlife. And we have to question it most likely to realize that deep inside we fool ourselves in wanting to think we are ethical when we’re not. It does not mean this cannot change though, but it starts with admitting it…

Harambe 4-1I watched a few of the video footage and got sick to my stomach when realizing that the only real danger was likely to be about drowning not about Harambe himself. Harambe was not aggressive but he certainly was confused (by the loud crowd above) as well as trying to help and protect this child. This child could not be considered as a threat by Harambe – to his eyes, it was an infant (the name for gorilla toddlers if you want). Infants are not threats to mature Silverbacks.

Oh darn! Another animal lover!… Well, it just happens that I studied them (had to but happily) for few months… Just that; and to be clear I don’t claim to be a gorilla expert. By now a great number of true/real/famous ape and gorilla experts talked about the matter saying the same as I did only more expansively and of course offering more details. Voila!

And so there again, a victim died due to our sheer stupidity and ignorance. The responsibility should fall on the zoo and the parents for sure – there is no question about it. Accident or not, you break a glass, you’re responsible. A gorilla gets killed in your institution, as a result of your child falling by accident, then yes you’re all responsible that you want it or not. Take your responsibility, be accountable people! Now, are they to blame? Not necessarily. I wasn’t there and even if I had been there it is never obvious what to do in the midst of such a tense situation. But there are other responsible too… The ones to blame are rather us as a whole, as a society, as a species even: Harambe got killed by the zoo that day because he was there on display for the public, put in that place by us. It’s an ethical matter. Do we want to be an ‘ethical’ species? Well, then we better start acting like it and rethink seriously our relationship with wildlife.

So today is a sad day, a mourning day; one of many these days, as animals now fall every single day either executed or euthanized, killed by negligence, selfies, lack of knowledge, conflicts, bushmeat, poaching, you name it… Yesterday, for instance, a yearling bear was euthanized for a scratch somewhere else in the US. Let’s face it: It’s all on us. All are our victims…

And on this sad day, the topic of the value of zoo collections is surfacing again in my mind…

No doubt that zoos are trying to revamp their image. They (well some to be more precise) have been for more than a decade now. And indeed a minority of them are doing some good work for in-situ conservation. Although it is also known that these projects are still marginal and that the ROI is still questionable when averaging over all species and given the 5 million or so animals in zoo captivity. To say the least the whole zoo industry is taking advantage of a blurring of the line between entertainment and the conservation work of a few. “It’s all for the good of conservation!” we hear over and over. A statement used to make you feel good, and to get the blind support of a public that does not know really what this means – and understandably so: animal welfare, ethics, rights are incredibly complex matters. But for sure the “it’s for a greater good” makes you buy that ‘all of it’ is morally justifiable. Think a little: ‘all of it’? really?

Harambe 3Focusing for a second on zoo collections or exhibits: it’s all about education and teaching about empathy, is it? Well if we are honest for a second, we all know that these exhibits amount to not much else than sacrificing animals for an ephemeral moment of human empathy… “No no! Our children are learning from it!”. Come on… Again let’s be honest with ourselves: a young child can tell you more about a dinosaur than he can about an elephant. You don’t need an elephant in a cage or an insufficient mimicked natural habitat to learn about elephants (and any other animal as a matter of fact). The knowledge is at best anecdotal and non-lasting. The truth is that the vast majority of zoo collections as currently handled and exhibited are simply not morally justifiable (few exceptions accepted). Let’s stop playing games. How about trying to think ethically and then act like it for a change…

Facts, facts?! There is a good amount written on the topic of the new integrated view of conservation as ‘practiced’ by zoos, as well as there is a good science literature reference work on the topic of the questionable educational value of zoo collections/exhibits. I am actually investigating that very topic for Earthwise Aware. Sometime this year hopefully the article with references (always!) will be out. Meanwhile, go see for yourself – “google scholar” the topic. Take the initiative and dig a little on your own. It’s not that hard to find those references, and your own knowledge digging is a good first step at grasping better what ethics is about. That is, ultimately you learning, understanding, digesting and finally making an informed decision (‘informed’ is the key here) and/or judgment call, that no one else can do for you.

Being an ethical individual cannot be outsourced: it’s all about you gaining that necessary knowledge to make ‘that’ decision…

[Further Reading…]

Putting Empathy on Display. Rose, N.A. (2016) – “It’s time for zoos and aquariums to take stock and decide on their future direction. They must stop displaying animals because the animals are cute, awe-inspiring, or beautiful, and start displaying ecosystems, the food-web building blocks, and all the smaller, nondescript, plain-Jane species that make the biosphere go ‘round. They need to keep their invertebrate houses and make the exhibits compelling. They need to come up with innovative and clever ways of making biodiversity and uncharismatic meso and microfauna a strong draw. And most importantly from an animal welfare standpoint, they need to end the exhibition of large, wide-ranging species, like orcas, that do not thrive in confinement. Until zoos and aquariums take on these tasks, their displays will be filled with animals but empty of empathy”…

About the author: Naomi Rose is a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, DC. She works on several campaigns and coalitions addressing problems associated with cetacean live capture, trade, and captivity, both in the US and abroad.

I’ve spent a lifetime with gorillas. Shooting them should be a last resortRedmond, I. (2016). in The Guardian (Wildlife Opinion) – The killing of Harambe after a child fell into his enclosure at Cincinnati zoo was a tragedy. Lethal force is not the only way to deal with these reasoning animals.

About the author: Ian Redmond is a tropical field biologist and conservationist, renowned for his work with great apes and elephants for 40 years. In 2009, Ian was an ambassador for the UN year of the gorilla and since 2010, the ambassador for the UNEP Convention on migratory species; he chairs the Ape Alliance ( and is an ambassador for Virtual Ecotourism, an exciting concept for immersive, interactive conservation education, which can be experienced at

Why was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place?. Bekoff, M. (2016). in Scientific American Blog – Amid the debate over who was at fault in the death of a beloved animal, we need to step back and ask a different question.

About the author: Marc Bekoff is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and a past Guggenheim Fellow. In 2000 he was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc is also an ambassador for Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program, in which he works with students of all ages, senior citizens, and prisoners, and also is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute. He and Jane co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies in 2000.

Claireby Claire O’Neill 

[Disclaimer] The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of any of her colleagues at Earthwise Aware. The photographs in this article are Google images found using the filter ‘labeled for non-commercial reuse with modification’.

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