Writing in The Washington Post, Lori Gruen, the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, argues that fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction after Harambe, an endangered lowland gorilla, was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 4-year-old child entered his enclosure. “The real culprits are zoos,” she writes.
Many in the animal protection community contend that the gorilla didn’t pose a real threat to the boy, and are questioning if zoo staff did enough to try to separate Harambe from the child. Others are blaming the boy’s mother for not properly supervising him.
For me, the real question is not who to blame, but why anyone was in a situation in which they had to make a choice between the life of a human child and the life of an endangered teenage gorilla in the first place. Keeping wild animals in captivity is fraught with problems. This tragic choice arose only because we keep animals in zoos.
Though killing is less common at U.S. zoos compared with the regular practice of “culling” at European ones, zoos are nonetheless places that cause death. Harambe’s life was cut short intentionally and directly, but for many zoo animals, simply being in captivity shortens their lives. We know this is true for whales in SeaWorld. Elephants, too, die prematurely in zoos. So why have zoos?
One of the reasons often given is that zoos protect and conserve endangered wild animals. A few zoos do fund conservation efforts — the Cincinnati Zoo is one of them. These efforts are laudable, and I would hope that in light of the tragedy the Cincinnati Zoo will spend more to help protect lowland gorillas. Their habitat, as is true for so many wild animals, is under threat.
But captive animals, especially large mammals born in captivity, like Harambe, cannot be “returned to the wild.” These sensitive, smart, long-lived gorillas are destined to remain confined, never to experience the freedom of the wild. They are, at best, symbols meant to represent their wild counterparts. But these symbols are distortions, created in an effort to amuse zoo-goers. Zoos warp our understanding of these wonderful beings and perpetuate the notion that they are here for our purposes.
If we really need someone to blame, maybe we should look at our society, which supports these types of institutions of captivity. If zoos were more like sanctuaries, places where captive animals can live out their lives free from screaming crowds and dangers not of their own making, no one would have had to decide to kill Harambe. Sanctuaries are places where the well-being of animals is of primary concern and animals are treated with respect. Four-year-olds and their families could see gorillas in Imax theaters, where their curiosity could be safely satisfied and gorillas could live with dignity, in peace.
Gruen also is chair of philosophy, professor of environmental studies, professor of science in society, professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies. She also commented in The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of the gorilla’s killing, and wrote this piece for the Center for Humans & Nature.