Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 2 weeks, you’ve certainly heard about the death of Harambe, a 17-year old gorilla, at the Cincinnati Zoo. A precocious 4 year-old boy managed to escape his mother’s attention (who had her hands full with at least 4 other kids) and climb into Harambe’s enclosure. The boy was in the enclosure for almost 10 minutes, being dragged around by a 400-pound gorilla, before zoo staff made the decision to kill the animal.
The decision to kill Harambe instantly turned 90% of internet users into experts on gorilla behaviour, chemical immobilization of animals, and zoo design. Admittedly I know very little about gorilla behaviour, but I put my faith in the people that spent their professional lives interacting with Harambe. If there was any uncertainty about the gorilla’s temperament and intention (and let’s be honest – it’s a wild animal, so there is always uncertainty), then there was no other choice but to kill him. This, for the simple fact that the safety of a child outweighs the safety of an animal – always.
Most people wondered why zoo staff couldn’t simply tranquilize Harambe, which illustrates the lack of knowledge about chemical immobilization within the general public. I have been certified by the Canadian Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians in the Chemical Immobilization of Wildlife (twice, actually). Chemical immobilization is only feasible under certain circumstances.
Some things to consider…
Many immobilization drugs are listed as narcotics, and are therefore strictly controlled. Many immobilization drugs are actually a mix of two or more drugs, often an analgesic and an anaesthetic or sedative. The zoo would have had reasonably quick access to the appropriate drugs, but these drug cocktails do not come pre-mixed; zoo staff would need to mix the drugs in an appropriate ratio and determine the correct volume based on the gorilla’s weight. In this span of time, anything could have happened. And let’s not forget that getting hit in the ass by a heavy, fast-moving dart full of fluid would hurt like a sonofabitch. What do you think would happen if Harambe thought that the boy was responsible for that sharp pain? The potential outcome makes my stomach turn.
I was inspired to weigh in on this issue not because of my direct experience with immobilizing animals, but by an email that I received from the electronic petition website Change.org. The email contained short descriptions of 4 Harambe-related petitions that they thought I “might be interested in”. A quick search of their website revealed 56 petitions related to this incident. Petition goals range from the laudable (improvements to zoo design) and reprehensible (an investigation of the family by Child Protection Services, close all zoos), to the funny (“ban uninformed people from starting petitions” is my favourite, followed closely by “re-animate the corpse of Harambe the gorilla”). It’s depressing to see that not of these petitions calls for actions that will serve to protect and conserve wild gorilla populations, which are globally threatened by habitat loss, disease (ebola), and poaching. Not one of them calls for action that will make one bit of difference in the grand scheme.
The death of Harambe isn’t going to make or break the world’s gorilla conservation efforts. Conservation occurs at the population level, not the individual level. But if his death makes the world just a little bit more aware of the actual pressures facing gorilla populations, then over time we might see more effective public engagement in gorilla conservation and, hopefully, wildlife conservation in general.