Rosie Dawson-Hewes: Hard lessons from zoo killing

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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Shooting Harambe would have been a heartbreaking decision for zoo staff who knew the animal better than anyone. Photo / AP
Shooting Harambe would have been a heartbreaking decision for zoo staff who knew the animal better than anyone. Photo / AP

I'd love to start this column with a joke about how the furore over the shooting of Harambe, a gorilla who was resident at Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, on Saturday, is all just a load of monkey business, but the reality is it's anything but funny.

The incident happened after a 3-year-old boy managed to climb into the enclosure, where he was grabbed by the gorilla. It was a life-threatening situation, no doubt. But in the end it wasn't the boy's life that was taken, it was the gorilla's. The 17-year-old animal was shot by zoo staff.

Since the event, the boy's parents have been subjected to death threats and countless nasty memes on social media, including one that suggested the gorilla was looking after the boy better than his parents. It's all too easy in situations such as this to blame the parents, as countless Twitter users did (suggesting the parents should have been shot instead of the gorilla), but the parents are not to blame. Anyone who's spent any decent amount of time with a kid that age should know children are wily little creatures.

You can be keeping the closest of eyes on them, then BAM! You blink and they're gone, vanished, nowhere to be seen. Lord knows the number of times I did that to my poor mother as a child. (Lord knows I can't move nearly that fast now as an adult!)

The parents are not to blame for the death of Harambe. The boy's mother perfectly summed up the situation when she broke her silence, saying on Facebook on Sunday: "As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today".

The way I see it, short of keeping your child on a leash (which my parents did resort to on occasion!) it is nigh on impossible to keep a tight grip on them at all times, especially when they're at the zoo, where it's all so exciting and they want the best possible view.

It would be easy to blame the zookeepers, those who made the call to shoot Harambe. But imagine Harambe was a person, not an animal. Put yourselves in the shoes of those keepers. The incident put them in a situation where they had to set aside their feelings for their friend, as no doubt Harambe would have been, and make the awful decision to kill him for the sake of a complete stranger. Think about how you would feel if you had to choose between your beloved pet dog and the safety of a stranger's child. I am absolutely certain it was an incredibly difficult decision to make, in a very short time. Those keepers knew Harambe better than anyone. They understood his every move, his gestures, his facial reactions. If anyone could read his behaviour and know if it was threatening or playful, it's the keepers at Cincinnati Zoo. There's a lot to be said for trusting the experts.

Let's also remember that one of the main roles of zoos now is preservation of endangered species. Zoo staff across the world are working non-stop to ensure the survival of species that might not otherwise survive in nature. Cheetahs spring to mind as an example, an animal that is incredibly low in number in part due to their insane ability to select the least genetically compatible mates, and mate for life. Go figure!

In short, those keepers would not have chosen to shoot Harambe unless they literally had no other choice. Tranquilising him wasn't an option as it risked not working or, worse, Harambe collapsing on top of the boy into the moat, drowning them both in the process.

If anyone is to blame for this awful mess it's Cincinnati Zoo. And by that I mean zoo management and those responsible for signing off the design of the enclosures. That is where accountability should be. Police are considering charging the parents. In my mind, it's the zoo that should be charged. Zoos do important work. I think they are a key part of ensuring the survival of many of the world's endangered species. They have a role to play and have come a long way in giving these animals the closest replication of their natural environment possible. But under no circumstances should a 3-year-old boy be able to unintentionally breach their security measures.

There are many lessons to be learnt from this. I hope we learn to support parents when they're in tough situations instead of blaming them. I hope we learn to better protect and serve our endangered species. And most of all I hope we learn to not just point the finger and play the blame game when things get crazy and lives are lost. There's so much more we can achieve by simply working together to ensure history doesn't repeat.

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