Harambe’s Story is More than a Meme

Harambe’s Story is More than a Meme

A recently publicized U.S. Department of Agriculture report has reinvigorated conversation about the fatal shooting of Harambe, a 17 year-old Western lowland gorilla inhabitant of the Cincinnati Zoo. The report finds that the enclosures of Gorilla World did not meet federal standards on the day of his death, May 28th, 2016, despite compliance in an April inspection earlier in the year (1).

    This news release was made public nearly 6 months after the presumed failure of the barriers to prevent the entry of a 3 ½ year old boy into the zoo’s ape enclosure. The 10 minute interaction between the child and Harambe occurred after the boy passed through the barriers and survived a 15 foot drop into the exhibit’s moat. Upon the toddler’s fall into the exhibit, Harambe grabbed and pulled him through the moat and eventually onto the ground. Here, the two sat without incident amidst shouts by onlookers (2).  In accordance with the Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team’s difficult assessment of this “life-threatening situation,” (3) Harambe was killed by means of a long rifle around 4 p.m. (2).

    As noted in the routine inspection on June 6, 2016, the enclosure and public barriers have not been updated since their 1978 construction; however, “no previous incidents involving the public crossing the public barrier had been recorded until now” (4). The Gorilla World barrier consists of multiple defenses to protect both the zoo visitors and the apes, including an elevated landscape, a hand railing with wire cables, a row of dense vegetation, and a substantial drop-off into a moat (6). The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a status which mandates rigorous safety measures under the Safety/Security requirements (5). In the U.S.D.A. report, obtained by the Associated Press, “inspectors found that the wire cables of the barrier were not taut enough and could be ‘manipulated to an eight-inch gap.’”

    According to the U.S.D.A animal welfare spokesperson, Tanya Espinosa, “the Cincinnati Zoo took swift and comprehensive corrective action in response” (6). The public barrier was updated at the time of inspection to comply with federal standards. The fence, now 41-42 inches tall, “is covered in a nylon mesh instead of the two cables,” and “three surveillance cameras were added to the enclosure to enhance observation of the public viewing area and the enclosure” (4). In a press release responding to the U.S.D.A. inspection, the Cincinnati Zoo confirmed these modifications to Gorilla World and reaffirmed “its longstanding commitment to the well-being of the resident animals and the safety of those inspired to view and conserve them (7).

    Attention drawn to the structural protection of zoo animals illuminates the global measures of animal protection for which zoos are increasingly responsible. Perhaps, due to the mounting emphasis on conservation in zoos (8), Harambe’s death garnered debate regarding the ethical implications of killing a member of a critically endangered species (9). Many facets of zoos are subject to ethical and philosophical critique, (10, 11) but their role in ex situ conservation receives considerable press in the ever-increasing environmental consciousness of the public (12).

In their native habitats throughout Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (13), Western lowland gorillas face immense threats. Largely anthropogenic, these threats include illegal poaching for the bushmeat and pet trades, disease such as Ebola, and habitat destruction by “unsustainable logging practices, commercial hunting and fishing, and oil and gas development.” According to the World Wildlife Fund, “the gorilla’s numbers have declined by more than 60% over the last 20 to 25 years” (14). Walsh et al. calculated a reduction rate of 2.56% and predicted population reduction of 80% over the next three generations. Therefore, the Western lowland gorilla is categorized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (15).

As an endangered inhabitant of an AZA accredited zoo, Harambe, along with the nearly 360 other gorilla captives of AZA institutions, was enrolled in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan. This is part of an AZA cooperative Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, established in 1981, with a mission “to oversee the population management of select species within AZA member institutions...and to enhance conservation of this species in the wild.” For the past 30 years, “in light of worrying trends in global biodiversity decline and the widely acknowledged potential of the extensive zoo and aquarium network to carry out studies that can provide conservation-relevant knowledge for field projects,” (20) the AZA has adopted an ecology and species-first approach in their conservation efforts. Operating under an ecocentric ethic opined by J. Baird Callicott, Aldo Leopold, and Holmes Rolston, the AZA noted that “the SSP was originally conceived to provide a blueprint for cooperative captive breeding programs in North America, but more recently the concept has also evolved to include field conservation efforts.” Specific efforts include reproduction facilitation, behavior management, veterinary care, population modelling, and in situ conservation liaison work (16).

Criticism directed at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team’s decision to kill a member of an endangered species must be taken into context in order to pinpoint legitimate concerns. The Gorilla SSP in which Harambe was enrolled at the Cincinnati Zoo assumes the primary responsibility of maintaining the gene pool of captive gorillas, promoting research, and advocating for wild gorillas as a means for conservation (17). Michael Hutchins, the former executive director of the Wildlife Society and former director and chair of conservation and science at the AZA, described the research, advocacy, and propagation of captive gorillas as more of an “insurance policy” in case of their extinction in the wild. (8). Currently, there are no reintroduction-oriented research projects for gorillas in AZA institutions. According to the Husbandry Manual for the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, “reintroduction to the wild may be neither appropriate nor necessary for this species” (21). Moreover, the genetic diversity of captive animals has received criticism, as Dale Jamieson explains: “...the lack of genetic diversity among captive animals also means that surviving members of endangered species have traits very different from their conspecifics in the wild. This should make us wonder what is really being preserved in zoos” (10).

Harambe, like most gorillas living in AZA accredited zoos, was born into a lifetime of captivity (18). Barring significant measures to wild population threat reduction, he would never have been designated for reintroduction to the wild in his lifetime. Moreover, using a postmortem gamete rescue procedure, “the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) was able to cryopreserve a sample of Harambe’s sperm...” and may preserve tissue samples for future research (18). Therefore, the loss of his life did not necessarily extinguish the loss of his individual contribution to the genetic diversity of Western lowland gorillas, and thus was not a loss to the conservation effort.

While the loss of Harambe’s life does not endanger the already contested gene bank for the Western lowland gorilla, research, advocacy, and education extend beyond a zoo animal’s reproductive potential. As “ambassadors for their kind,” (9) animals in zoos fulfill a conscripted role of attracting both compassion and protection for their species in the wild. Providing the public with the ability to interact with gorillas is lauded to raise “public awareness and support for in situ conservation” (12). Harambe’s symbolic representation of wild gorillas was not lost in his death; in fact, the controversial nature of his shooting potentially captured the attention and compassion of the public more than his living presence. Social media campaigns and Internet-memes about Harambe, while contentious in their tendency to mock Harambe, may contribute to a budding conversation about animals in captivity (22), amassing greater awareness and support for zoo conservation efforts. In a press release to the Associated Press in response to the public reaction to Harambe’s death, Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard said “...we are honoring Harambe by redoubling our gorilla conservation efforts and encouraging others to join us" (23).

The martyrdom of Harambe by the general public and the Cincinnati Zoo points to the leading debate regarding wildlife conservation between environmental ethicists and animal ethicists. Utilizing Harambe’s death as a symbol for the anthropogenic threat to all critically endangered Western lowland gorillas could succeed in gaining advances for the protection of his species. An alignment with the ecocentric values promoted by Callicott and Rolston (12) would perhaps praise the effects of Harambe’s death as instrumental to the prioritization of his species’ survival over his own. Animal ethicists, such as Regan and Singer, however, might renounce this proposed victory to conservation as “...subordinating the rights of individuals to the interests of the greater whole” (12) in a violation of individual animal’s rights and inherent worth. This amounts to a value assessment of not just the conservation program in which Harambe was enrolled, but the ethical dilemma posed by the entire concept of keeping animals in captivity.

    The protection of endangered wild animals receives great importance in the face of increasing loss of biodiversity, climate change, and human development. While the level of zoos’ responsibility in this endeavor remains contested, the global imperative of conservation should not eclipse the key point made here. Whether they achieve an interpretation of his moral worth in a species context or martyrdom as a meme, ongoing discussions about conservation must transpire in the memory of Harambe, the Western lowland gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo.



  1. Holley, Peter. "Gorilla Death at Cincinnati Zoo Puts Debate over Captive Creatures in Stark Relief." The Washington Post, May 31, 2016. Accessed November 24, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/30/shooting-an-endangered-animal-is-worse-than-murder-grief-over-gorillas-death-turns-to-outrage/?tid=a_inl.

  2. McPhate, Mike. "Gorilla Killed After Child Enters Enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo." The New York Times, May 29, 2016. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/30/us/gorilla-killed-after-child-enters-enclosure-at-cincinnati-zoo.html?_r=0.

  3. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. "MEDIA UPDATE: GORILLA WORLD." News release, May 28, 2016. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://cincinnatizoo.org/blog/2016/05/28/media-update-gorilla-world/.

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Inspection Report. Customer ID, 2208. Certificate, 31-C-0044. Site 001. 06/06/2016.

  5. https://www.aza.org/assets/2332/aza-accreditation-standards.pdf

  6. Associated Press. "Feds: Barrier to Gorilla Exhibit Entered by Boy Ineffective." News release, November 17, 2016. Ap.org. Accessed November 26, 2016. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/499468e88fb24195a0a69854187b3e71/apnewsbreak-ohio-zoos-gorilla-barrier-wasnt-compliance.

  7. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. "CINCINNATI ZOO STATEMENT REGARDING USDA REVIEW." News release, November 17, 2016. Cincinnatizoo.org. Accessed November 28, 2016.

  8. Hutchins, Michael, and Robert J. Wiese. "Beyond genetic and demographic management: The future of the Species Survival Plan and related AAZPA conservation efforts." Zoo biology 10, no. 4 (1991): 285-292.

  9. Brulliard, Karin. "What Harambe’s Death Means for a Critically Endangered Species of Gorilla." The Washington Post, June 2, 2016. Accessed November 28, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/06/02/what-harambes-death-means-for-a-critically-endangered-species-of-gorilla/.

  10. Jamieson, Dale. "Against zoos." Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application 5 (1985): 97-103.

  11. Regan, Tom. "Are zoos morally defensible." The animal ethics reader (2003): 452-458.

  12. Keulartz, Jozef. "Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28, no. 2 (2015): 335-351.

  13. "Western Lowland Gorillas." National Geographic. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/lowland-gorilla/.

  14. "Western Lowland Gorilla." WorldWildlife.org. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/western-lowland-gorilla.

  15. Maisels, F., Strindberg, S., Breuer, T., Greer, D., Jeffery, K. & Stokes, E. 2016.  Gorilla gorilla ssp. gorilla. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T9406A17989591. Downloaded on 25 November 2016.

  16. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2014). Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Program Handbook. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Silver Spring, MD.

  17. Gorilla Species Survival Plan. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://www.gorillassp.org/index.html.

  18. "Harambe FAQ." The Cincinnati Zoo Botanical Garden. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://cincinnatizoo.org/harambe-faq/.

  19. Jamieson, Dale. "Against zoos." Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application 5 (1985): 97-103.

  20. Minteer, Ben A., and James P. Collins. "Ecological ethics in captivity: Balancing values and responsibilities in zoo and aquarium research under rapid global change." Ilar Journal 54, no. 1 (2013): 41-51.

  21. Ogden, Jacqueline, and Dan Wharton. “Husbandry Manual: Gorilla Species Survival Plan.” The Gorilla Species Survival Plan, and The Atlanta/Fulton County Zoo, Inc. (1997).

  22. Griffin, Andrew. "Harambe: Stop Making Memes of Our Dead Gorilla, Cincinnati Zoo Pleads." The Independent, August 22, 2016. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/harambe-memes-cincinnati-zoo-gorilla-shot-dead-rip-a7203356.html.

  23. Smyth, Julie Carr, and Dan Sewell. "Harambe Lives: Killed Zoo Gorilla Gets a Second Life Online." The Associated Press, August 22, 2016. Accessed November 29, 2016. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/30e2268f9c084dcfbee37ee7b716a362/harambe-lives-killed-zoo-gorilla-gets-second-life-online.

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