Monday, June 6, 2016

Human life or animal life? Case of Harambe the gorilla

The killing of a gorilla at a zoo in the US city of Cincinnati after a toddler fell into its enclosure sparked outrage -  with many people saying the male gorilla should not have been killed since the animal, in their view, did not intend to harm the child. This raises the question as to whether or not the gorilla should have been given the benefit of the doubt after dragging the child around heavy-handedly "like a rag doll".
A gorilla was gunned down on Saturday May 28, 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. According to CNN the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla called Harambe was killed to save a boy who slipped into the animal's habitat. Critics, many of whom blamed the child´s mother for failing to look after her son, believe the killing of the gorilla was "unnecessary". Others reportedly criticized the zoo for using "excessive force", and demonstrators called for a boycott of the zoo. An online petition seeking "justice" for the dead gorilla earned 8,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, according to CNN. As of the time of this writing the petition titled "Justice for Harambe" had garnered 502,198 supporters. The creator of the petition and its signatories want the parents of the child to be held accountable for "lack of supervision and negligence" that caused Harambe the gorilla to lose its life. The signatories and the creator feel that the parental "negligence" at the zoo is reflective of the child's home situation. It is worth mentioning that the petition, which is, addressed to the director of Cincinnati zoo and Hamilton County Child Protection Services, completely vindicates the zoo of any wrong doing and focuses solely on the parents of the child.

My view

First and foremost, I will not sign the "Justice for Harambe" petition - not because I do not like animals but because I believe the petition is misguided. To completely absolve Cincinnati Zoo of any responsibility and focus solely of the parents of the child - one of whom was reportedly not present at the time of the sad incident - is not the right cause of action. The petition is framed to give the impression that the creator, Sheila Hurt, has the interest of the child at heart but the way I see it, it is designed by someone who feels an animal's wellbeing is more important than - if not equal to - the wellbeing of a human being; someone who thinks that the gorilla should not have been shot to save a child. The petition states that the 17-year-old gorilla was "perceived" as dragging the child. The dragging is not a question of perception - the gorilla in fact dragged the child around in water and reportedly on rocks. Any unbiased observer who has watched a video of the incident would agree. Stating that the gorilla was "perceived" as dragging the boy screams bias. According to the BBC the boy was dragged by the silverback gorilla for about 10 minutes before the zoo officials made the decision to shoot it down.

A lot of people are upset about the killing of the gorilla, and rightly so. The western lowlands gorillas is a critically endangered specie - reportedly numbering less than 175,000 in the wild with an additional 765 in zoos around the world, according to CNN. However, no one really knows whether or not Harambe the gorilla at Cincinnati zoo was protecting the child who fell into the moat - as claimed by critics of the decision to shoot and kill. But one thing is clear: the gorilla was dragging the child around pretty violently as evidenced by numerous videos, and the child's life was in danger. I do not think the gorilla should have been given the benefit of the doubt. It would have been too risky to do so. Zoo authorities should not gamble with a child's life.

I like animals but from a parental perspective, Cincinnatti zoo made the right - and at the same time unfortunate - call. If it were my son in there with an agitated silverback gorilla I would expect zoo officials to do whatever it takes, including using lethal force to get my child out of there - alive. I would not give a gorilla the benefit of the doubt with my child in harms way - irrespective of whether or not the child got into the situation due to so-called improper parenting. Even the best parents, I think, slip off sometimes and what happens at a zoo is not necessarily "reflective of the child's home situation". Anyone who has children knows that children get themselves into difficult and sometimes dangerous situations even under "proper parental supervision". All it takes is a second or two for a child to get into trouble. Urging child protection services to consider taking away a child from his parents because of an incident at a zoo is not justice for Harambe; it is, on the contrary, unjust, vindictive and a step too far.

I would not vilify Cincinnati Zoo neither. However, I found is shocking that the barrier at the zoo's Gorilla World was about the height of a baby gate - 3 feet tall, according to ABC News. It is not high enough. If there is any negligence in this case it is on the part of the zoo. A barrier the height of a baby gate is not a good enough barrier at a zoo visited by children of all ages. Curious toddlers climb through baby gates at home and they would climb over baby gate-like barriers in a crowded zoo if they want to. If the barrier was high enough the child would not have climbed all the way without someone noticing. He might not have even tried. The barrier at Cincinnati Zoo's Gorilla World needs a makeover. The fact that prior to this case the barrier had not been breached in 38 years does not mean it is safe. Common sense tells me that a 3 feet barrier separating humans, including children from gorillas is not high enough. It is time for Cincinnati zoo and other zoos with baby gates for barriers to reevaluate. Parents take their children to zoos because they assume zoos are safe. Zoos have a responsibility to protect staff and visitors from wild animals they hold captive. A 4-year-old should not be able to easily breach a barrier in a gorilla exhibit.

It is unlikely that the boy's parents would be held criminally responsible - despite the online petition designed to land them in trouble. Holding them criminally liable would set a dangerous precedent and open a floodgate of cases against parents - because even the best parents slip off sometimes and parental slip offs do not always necessarily amount to parental negligence.

The case of Harambe and the 4-year-old boy is sad on all levels. But if I have to pick who lives between a gorilla and a human being - child or adult - I would pick the human. It does not mean I do not like animals. On the contrary I really like animals, especially dogs. I support human rights - and animal rights. It follows that I oppose cruelty against humans and animals. But in an event where animal rights or animal protection clashes with human rights and safety the latter takes precedence. Ron Magill, communications Director/Curator at Miami Metro Zoo, said something that aptly captures my thoughts on this matter. Speaking to CNN, he said:
"There is no single animal life that is more important than a human life".
Echoing the words of Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard, "they [the zoo officials] made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy's life. It could've been very bad". The director said a tranquilizer would not have taken down the gorilla quick enough. Jack Hanna, an animal expert and director emeritus of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium concurred - "1000 percent".

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