The XX Factor

I Used to Work as a Zookeeper. Here’s What We’re Missing About the Death of Harambe.

A mother and her child visit a bronze statue of a gorilla outside the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit.

William Philpott/Reuters

I worked with gorillas as a zookeeper at the Knoxville Zoo from January 2006 until August of 2008; after that I volunteered doing sanctuary work and wildlife rehab. Of the dozens of animals I worked with closely, gorillas were my favorite—for their soulfulness, curiosity, and playfulness. Since the news emerged last weekend that Cincinnati Zoo officials shot and killed the gorilla known as Harambe after a little boy fell into his enclosure, I’ve realized that there are some misconceptions out there about both the gorilla species itself and how a zoo operates in emergency situations. Here, I’d like to try to clear up those misconceptions.

Gorillas are often considered to be “gentle giants,” at least when compared with their more aggressive cousins, the chimpanzee. But a 450-pound male such as Harambe has the strength of roughly 10 adult humans. What can you bench-press? Now multiply that number by 10. An adult male silverback gorilla has one job: to protect his group. He does this by bluffing or intimidating anyone and anything that he feels threatened by.

Gorillas are considered a Class I mammal, the most dangerous class of mammals in the animal kingdom—again, merely due to their size and strength. They are grouped in with other apes as well as tigers, lions, and bears. While working in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums–accredited zoo with apes, keepers do not work in direct contact with them; they never share an enclosed space with these animals. There is always a welded mesh barrier between the animal and the humans.

In recent decades, zoos have begun to redesign enclosures, removing all obvious caging in the attempt to create a seamless view of the animals in a more natural-looking habitat. Many viewing areas have glass fronts or more elaborate designs, including moats and waterfalls, as a means to keep the animals safely inside their enclosures. Walkways are lined with basic guard rails and shrubbery that can be breached, with strong enough intentions. This is fine—until little children begin falling into exhibits. This of course can happen to anyone, especially in a crowded zoo setting.

I have watched the video of Harambe and the little boy over and over again. The silverback’s posturing and tight lips are a sign of agitation—a signal that the animal was stressed. Like humans, great apes have many different facial expressions that reveal what they are feeling. When a gorilla stands tense on his knuckles with shoulders high and lips tucked in tight, he is ready to intimidate whatever is threatening him. 

Gorillas can be kind, curious, and sometimes silly, but they are also very large, very strong animals. I always brought my OCD to work with me, checking and rechecking locks to make sure my animals and I remained separated before entering. 

The author with a silverback gorilla circa 2009.

Amanda O’Donoughue

I keep hearing on the news and on social media that the gorilla appeared to be trying to protect the boy from the yelling onlookers. I do not think this was the case. Harambe reaches for the boys’ hands and arms, but only to position the child better for his own displaying purposes. Males perform very elaborate displays when highly agitated, slamming and dragging things about, as Harambe did with the young child. Typically, male gorillas in captivity (and in the wild) will drag around large branches, barrels, and heavy-weighted balls to make as much noise as possible—not in an effort to hurt anyone or anything (usually), but just to intimidate. It is clear to me from Harambe’s body language that he was reacting to the screams from the gathering crowd and possibly from the child himself.

Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first—again, due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent. Why didn’t the staff use food to lure Harambe away from the boy? I am under the impression that the keepers called the animals “off exhibit,” which is usually done using food as a lure; the females shifted into their indoor enclosures, but Harambe would not leave the boy. What better treat for a captive animal than a real live kid? 

Tranquilizers may sound like a great option, but they weren’t used likely for a few different reasons. First, it would have taken too long to immobilize Harambe with tranquilizers, and in the intervening time, he could have seriously injured or killed the child. Second, it’s possible that Harambe could have drowned in the moat if immobilized in the water—which meant that he could have trapped the boy beneath him and drowned him as well. 

Many zoos have the protocol to call on their expertly trained dart team in the event of an animal escape or when a human is trapped with a dangerous animal. They will evaluate the scene as quickly and as safely as possible, and will make the most informed decision as how they will handle the animal. I can’t point fingers at anyone in this situation, but what’s needed is a reevaluation of the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitors’ side. It’s easy to build an exhibit so that the animals cannot escape. What is difficult is building an exhibit that showcases the animals in a natural-looking environment that mimics its wild counterpart without using caging. Caging impedes the patrons’ views of the animal, and many zoos have moved away from cages for purely aesthetic reasons. Zoo visitors want to be able to see the animals at all times, but more recent designs allows for animals to move off exhibit and out of sight if they feel the need, giving them places to hide and reducing their stress levels. Many exhibits designed in this way offer a view from above; moats and waterfalls, hills and valleys are carefully laid out to give the patron and the exhibited animal exactly what they need from the experience.

One thing I know for sure is that the keepers in Cincinnati lost a gorgeous silverback, and a friend. I feel their loss with them. As educators and conservators of endangered species, all we can do is shine a light on the beauty and majesty of these animals in hopes of sparking a love and a need to keep them from vanishing from our planet. Child killers, they are not. It’s unfortunate for the boy and his family, for the conservation of the species, and for a beautiful zoo such as Cincinnati’s.

This article was adapted from a Facebook post.