Seconds to shoot leaves no time for monkey business.

Many are questioning the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to shoot and kill an endangered gorilla to save the life of a small child fell into the gorilla exhibit.

Photo by Mark Dumont

Outrage swept the country last week as Harambe, the rare western lowland gorilla who attempted to protect a young boy who fell into his enclosure, was shot and killed.  The family of three-year old Isaiah Dickerson had a play day at the zoo when the young boy climbed over a fence, through a dividing hedge row, and jumped down into the gorilla exhibit.  The boy fell 15 feet into the moat surrounding the exhibit, yet surprisingly was unharmed.  Harambe, hearing the boy splashing around in the water, rushed over to the boy, stood him up, looked him over, and pulled up his shorts.  At this point, Isaiah’s mother was understandably worried about her young child.

 “Gorillas don’t attack.  They are a peaceful species.”

Where Tarzan may have ended up fine, the 450 pound gorilla at one point started dragging the boy through the water.  As professor Gisela Kaplan stated, this behavior is not aggressive.  Kaplan, a professor of animal behavior at the University of New England, explained that this is how gorillas typically treat their own young.  She went on to say that “Gorillas don’t attack.  They are a peaceful species.”   It is easy to see why people were fearful for the boy’s life.  An ex-zookeeper stated that the situation was terrifying due to the possible outcomes.

Although the gorilla may have acted agitated, this may have been due to Isaiah’s screaming mother and other onlookers from above.  After the boy fell, the gorilla can be seen shielding the boy in the corner before dragging him through the moat.  After dragging the boy for a short distance, the gorilla gently stands the boy up, pulls up his pants and takes hold of his arm.

Further, Harambe may have meant the child no harm because gorillas are herbivores.  Their diet consists mostly of vines, shoots, and leaves.  Unlike a tiger, there is no chance that the gorilla would attack the child for the purpose of eating him.  The only concern is that the gorilla might act in a territorial manner toward the child, severely injuring him.  Although a gorilla may not intend to hurt anyone, gorillas are typically six-times as strong as humans and can smash a coconut with one hand—something that normally takes a machete.  With such strength, even a playful gesture can kill a young child.

Gorillas have encountered young children in their exhibits in the past.  In 1986, a five-year-old fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Jersey Zoo.  The young child was seriously injured and Jambo, a male gorilla protected the boy and even stroked the boy’s back until the boy woke up and help arrived.  The zoo-keepers did not see Jambo as a threat to the boy because he did not act in an aggressive manner.  In 1996 a young child fell into a Gorilla exhibit and was also severely injured.  A female Gorilla named Binti Jua picked the child up and carried him to safety at the Chicago Zoo.  Binti Jua used her maternal instincts to help the boy.  However, these incidents do not speak for every gorilla because these animals can be unpredictable and violent at times.

[T]he Cincinnati zoo did not have a choice except to shoot

In Rotterdam, a woman who frequently visited the gorilla exhibit continuously smiled and waved at a gorilla named ­­­­Bokito.  She believed that she had some sort of bond because he would smile back at her.  Unfortunately, when a gorilla smiles it is a sign of aggression.  After repeating this behavior a number of times, Bokito found a way out of his enclosure and attacked the woman, leaving her with numerous wounds.  Bokito was returned to his habitat after being sedated.

In the most recent situation that occurred with this gorilla, many argue that the Cincinnati zoo did not have a choice except to shoot.  While the gorilla did not look like it was going to attack the boy, Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal stated, “A gorilla is so immensely strong that even with the best intentions—and we are not sure that Harambe had those— the child’s death was a probable outcome.”  Zoo-keepers and animal researchers, including Jane Goodall, have expressed sympathy at the tragic situation.

If an animal hurts a visitor, even a visitor who has acted negligently, a jury could hold the zoo liable for millions of dollars following an injury. 

Zoos have faced lawsuits resulting from similar incidents.  In 2012, a two-year-old slipped from his mother’s arms into the African painted dog exhibit and was mauled to death.  The parents sued the zoo alleging wrongful death and negligence and the case was eventually settled.  In addition to the settlement amount given to the parents, the zoo also incurred severe fines by regulation agencies and ultimately lost the exhibit.  The difficult issue that zoos face is that their purpose is to allow citizens the ability to get a closer look at wildlife that is not safe to see at the same distance in the wild.   Zoos cannot control the animals; they can only try to make viewing as safe and as natural for the public and animals as possible.

Although the Cincinnati zoo has not had a similar incident with other exhibits, two curious polar bears found themselves in service hallways for their exhibit at the zoo this past March.  In response, the zoo went into a complete lockdown until the animals were sedated and returned to their enclosures.  Realistically, zoos cannot take any risks.  If an animal hurts a visitor, even a visitor who has acted negligently, a jury could hold the zoo liable for millions of dollars following an injury.

In the wake of this most recent zoo incident, many animal rights groups have signed a petition that suggests that charges should be brought against the young boy’s mother for not watching her child.  As of now, the petition has over 450,000 signatures.  Before the boy fell into the exhibit, an onlooker heard the boy arguing with his mother about wanting to go into the water.  The mother kept telling the boy “no,” but when she turned her attention to the other children, Isaiah bolted over the fence, through the hedgerow and barreled down into the moat of the gorilla’s habitat.  Isaiah’s mother however, did not support or encourage his actions.

Sadly, this is not always the case.  In April of 2015, Michelle Schwab and her family overlooked the Cheetah exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.  Schwab held the child dangling over the enclosure when the 2-year-old slipped from her arms and fell 10 feet into the exhibit.  The parents jumped into the enclosure to retrieve the child who suffered a broken leg from the fall.  Unlike Isaiah’s mother, Ms. Schwab put her child in danger when she chose to dangle the child above the exhibit.  Isaiah’s mother was simply preoccupied and lost track of Isaiah in the crowd.   Although Ms. Schwab faced a misdemeanor charge for her actions, prosecutors have announced that Isaiah’s mother will not face charges in this incident.

As upsetting as [the zoo’s] choice may [have been], it had to be done. 

All in all, it seems wrong that an endangered gorilla should have to die due to the naivety of a young child.  However, with the boy’s life on the line, the zoo only had one choice.  As upsetting as that choice may be, it had to be done.  If the zoo would have hesitated or decided not to shoot Harambe, there could be a dead child, a zoo being sued for millions of dollars, and a dead gorilla, euthanized due to the boy’s death.  The zoo had mere seconds to shoot to stop a bigger tragedy from occurring.  By acting swiftly, the zoo chose the best option for their future.  If gorillas could sue, this would definitely be an entirely different situation.

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About Cyrus Corbett V, Associate Editor Emeritus (16 Articles)
Cyrus Corbett V is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and received his Bachelors in Arts in Government from Wofford College in 2014. Since July after his first year of law school, Cyrus has interned at the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association in downtown Raleigh focusing on the Retail Merchants Handbook. His interest is in jurisprudence of the law and negotiation/ mediation.
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