Harambe, Five Years Later: Cincinnati Zoo Was in the Right

A mother and her child visit a bronze statue of a gorilla outside the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit, in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 30, 2016. (William Philpott/Reuters)

There’s an apocryphal saying about Cincinnati, Ohio, my hometown. The saying is usually attributed to Mark Twain. And though there’s no concrete evidence he ever said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times,” many residents and natives have embraced the description — either ironically, or as a kind of backhanded testament to Cincinnati’s modest, underappreciated character.

But five years ago today, it seemed like the end of the world had come to Cincinnati before it came anywhere else. A young child at the Cincinnati Zoo accidentally had stumbled into an enclosure containing a gorilla named Harambe. In the video of the incident, Harambe is seen dragging and roughhousing with the human child. Seeing this, zoo employees made the decision to kill their own animal. The outcry came swiftly; both locally and nationally (even internationally), there was outrage over what the Zoo decided to do. Harambe was just playing with the child, some said. Why didn’t the Zoo use a tranquilizer dart? others suggested. And what about the child’s mother, who had been careless enough not to keep her child out of the enclosure?

These were some of the more reasonable, if still misguided, reactions. But things got far worse than that. Celebrity and meme culture jumped on the Harambe train as famous blowhards and digital troublemakers condemned Harambe’s death. The child’s mother became the target of online harassment. The Zoo was, and probably still remains, a target of Internet trolls. The memes about Harambe seemed to transcend the incident itself — in summer 2016, Harambe briefly outpolled Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein — to become one of the digital world’s bizarre touchstones. To some extent, he remains so to this day.

He shouldn’t. The Cincinnati Zoo did the right thing by killing Harambe. There’s no concrete evidence Harambe was simply playing with the child. But even if he was, as primatologist Frans De Waal noted, “a gorilla is so immensely strong that even with the best of intentions—and we are not sure that Harambe had those—the child’s death was a probable outcome.” Famed wildlife expert Jack Hanna stressed that a tranquilizer dart would have had a delayed effect, and may have simply aggravated the gorilla, placing the human child in further danger. And Jane Goodall, practically a byword for gorilla expertise, emphasized that the situation had left the zoo no choice. It’s hard to get more authoritative than that.

As for the human child’s mother, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters declined to charge her with anything. This line of argument always struck me as irrelevant, anyway — a kind of post-facto second-guessing (really at play throughout such reactions) that assumes possession of a time machine, or substitutes the supposedly superior judgment and parenting skills of people angry online after the fact in place of people in the middle of a harrowing situation. The circumstances that led to the child’s position in that enclosure seem, to a point, essentially irrelevant to me. The fact was that, at that moment, a human life had been placed in danger by its proximity to animal life. The choice in such situations should be obvious in favor of human life. That to many at the time — and to some still — it wasn’t obvious (Harambe got a vigil, for goodness sake) forces me to consider anew the words not of Mark Twain but of G. K. Chesterton:

There is a healthy and an unhealthy love of animals: and the nearest definition of the difference is that the unhealthy love of animals is serious. I am quite prepared to love a rhinoceros, with reasonable precautions: he is, doubtless, a delightful father to the young rhinoceroses. But I will not promise not to laugh at a rhinoceros. . . . I will not worship an animal. That is, I will not take an animal quite seriously: and I know why.

Wherever there is Animal Worship there is Human Sacrifice. That is, both symbolically and literally, a real truth of historical experience.

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online.

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