I Cannot Let It Go…


Last night, I was tweeting about Harambe when a squawking bird dumped a healthy load of quasi-digested something in my hair. The bird’s message was not lost on me; my avian friend reminded me that not unlike its offering, Harambe’s death has been messy and  uncomfortable. The latter event is also incredibly sad, while nothing lingers today of the former other than a funny memory.

For those of you who have not yet heard of Harambe…where have you been?!  Pick up a newspaper!  Seriously, though, on Saturday, a 4-year-old boy was hanging out near the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell in. According to video footage, Harambe dragged the boy through the water, touched him, people yelled, the gorilla seemed confused…There seem to be as many versions of what happened as there are people reporting the story. Everyone agrees on how the story ended, though; after determining they had no choice, the zoo authorized Harambe’s (fatal) shooting.

The gorilla’s death has lit up social media, and things have not been pretty. Much as with last year’s outcry following the shooting of Cecil the lion, people are out for human blood. And while I, usually the freak outsider with my animal rights views, bask temporarily in having my outrage at the mistreatment of animals mirrored by those around me, such basking is indeed only temporary. Very quickly, my feelings of solidarity with many people dissipate as quickly as they type misogynist/hateful comments.  Not only is the child’s mother a negligent dumb bitch (I cringe as I write), her right “to breed,” her character, her life, are all open to vile and scary criticism. Petitions are even circulating about calling for a child protection investigation. Let’s dial it back a bit, people, okay? I think we need more compassion in this world, not less.

Others direct their ire at the zoo. Why are there not better barriers surrounding the enclosures? Why not tranquilize Harambe instead of kill him? Still others blame Harambe himself, pointing out that we would all choose to kill someone harming our child. This kind of rhetoric is as unpalatable as it is lame. Experts, both real and armchair, interpret the video in various ways: Harambe was acting erratically, or protectively, or in confusion, or helpfully. Jack Hanna this, Frans de Waal that.

But here’s the thing. I do not want to debate these things. I do not know whether the child’s mother is incredibly attentive or not. I do not know whether Harambe was two seconds away from smashing this child’s cranium. I do not know whether the zookeepers loved him or not. I do not know whether the Cincinnati Zoo is now motivated to create the best enclosures and the best barriers in the world (I’ve been listening to Donald Trump speak too much lately).  But really? I believe all these things miss the bigger point, which is that Harambe’s death was so desperately, gut-wrenchingly preventable.

Who could have predicted that accidents involving people and animals would occur when humans trap massive animals in cities? Animals with claws, micro-second reflexes, individual desires, and a thwarted instinct to be free? Animals who might in nature walk dozens of miles a day? Animals whose reality is being stared at, yelled to, teased, knuckles knocking glass, tiny human prey bouncing just on the other side of bars…What do we expect? Can accidents really be called accidents when they are so inevitable?

More important to me than the ability of humans to stay alive during their visit to the zoo, however, is the facilities’ inherent anthropocentrism. Can we please, please just stop pretending that zoos are anything but a one-way street in which humans gain fleeting entertainment and animals lose everything?  We have the option of choosing to go to the zoo (or, often as whimsically, a movie, or a restaurant) on the weekend; the animals have the choice of how many times to follow the zoochotic trail they have beaten into their enclosure after a lifetime of captivity. Yes, some might say, but zoos keep animals alive – what would happen if we closed all the zoos?! I prefer to take the long view of exactly the lifespan of each animal currently in a zoo. Let these ones live out their lives (which will be short if they are earmarked for culling or killed for harming a human), and that is it. It is over. What life is it for future generations of a species if it is to live in a glass cage? Could there possibly be a deeper follow-up insult to Harambe than that the Cincinnati Zoo has announced its possession of his sperm, so that his genetic line may continue?

Zoos cannot help but ingrain in humans further understanding that we are the dominant species, that everything is to be enjoyed and used by us with no concern for consequence. We delight in seeing animals who would easily elude us or sink their teeth into our collective jugular if we came face-to-face in the wild. We get to choose how much time we spend observing a particular cage; they are there all day. We get to decide how to frame this animal in text and in discourse: is it a master predator? A gentle, social creature? We even decide whether the animal is intelligent, based on our own parameters. Children learn that it does not matter how far from its natural home an animal is, how wrong the climate may be for it, how much it would eschew human contact if given the choice, it is okay to keep it on display for our pleasure, because we are people and they are not.

I can hear the counter-points being composed; I have heard them already.  But…conservation…education…seeing is caring…zoos love the animals…  I promise you that I have thought of all of these things. I know that many zoos give a piece to conservation efforts.  I understand that maybe some people are transformed by a zoo visit. Things are not black and white to me; I dwell in the grey. But I do not care about what the experience is like for humans.  Despite what the existence of zoos suggests, I do not think that I have some inborn, human right to see any animal regardless of what it must endure for me to see it. I do not have the right to see an animal if to do so is to have it endure a lifetime of discomfort. I care about the animals, and I care about what zoos tell us about our supremacy in an ongoing way. Nothing about a zoo’s mission, even the best of them, justifies its foundational, ongoing captivity of animals. If zoos took in only animals that had no chance of living in the wild and any breeding would be with the full and unequivocal goal of controlled release to the wild, this conversation might be different.  Unfortunately, the word “conservation,” for a zoo, can mean the preservation of a particular animal’s life and the continuation of a species in captivity with no plan for release.

We need to learn from Harambe’s death and undergo a societal shift on zoos. We must ask ourselves how this situation, where our western ideology dictates that animals exist for whatever we desire, is okay. We must ask ourselves who is served by a zoo, and at what price. We need for Harambe’s death to have meant something, or else we will be sending the bird plop message that his life meant nothing.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. dehopkins
    Jun 01, 2016 @ 03:51:57

    Genius hon. Thanks

    Sent from my iPhone



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