You Decide: The Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla Incident

Posted by on Jun 8, 2016 in You Decide!

Here at btw, we are not afraid to delve into controversial subjects. This is because we believe in presenting you with as much information as possible, from both sides of the issue. On May 28, a four-year old boy climbed through a barrier to the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio and dropped fifteen feet into a water moat. In response, a 450-pound male gorilla named Harambe jumped into the water with the boy.


The young boy was injured in the incident and was placed in the hospital to recover. The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team made the decision to shoot and kill the animal. We will not focus on the fault of the child’s parents or the effectiveness of the zoo’s enclosure. Instead, we wish to present a clear-eyed look at a difficult subject and ask for your opinion.


  • All zoos of the caliber of the one in Cincinnati have teams that are well-trained and prepared for a wide variety of emergencies. The first action of the response team (made up of veterinarians, security and zoo leadership), was to call the gorillas out of the exhibit. While two of the other gorillas in the exhibit complied (both of them female) Harambe did not.
  • Some animal behavioral specialists and primate experts (including the Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus Jack Hanna) interpreted Harambe’s behavior as the animal being disoriented and agitated. Silverback male gorillas can turn violent if they perceive a threat. It is their job to protect their troop. The gorilla grabbed the child by the leg and drug him through the water. Even if the silverback’s intention was not to hurt the boy, his strength alone could have harmed or even killed the boy.
  • Using a tranquilizer involved too many unknown risks. First, such drugs can take several minutes to take effect, and the act of shooting the animal with the dart could have further agitated it. This might have increased the chances of harming the boy trapped in the exhibit. Or, the drug could have caused the 450-pound animal to either fall on the boy or land face-first in the water and drown.


  • There have been previous incidents of children falling into animal exhibits, but this is the first time in a while that an animal has been shot dead to resolve the situation. In 1996, a similar incident occurred at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. A three-year-old child fell into an animal enclosure. A female gorilla named Binti Jua carried the boy to safety.
  • Some animal behavioral specialists and primate experts have called the shooting an “overly drastic” measure. Activist and primatologist Jane Goodall interpreted the behavior exhibited by Harambe as possibly protective. Because it is rare for silverbacks to be in such contact with humans, the Cincinnati gorilla was likely “investigating,” which was its job as the protector of the group, perhaps checking to see if the boy was alive.
  • The death of Harambe, who was the alpha-male, will have a significant impact on the other eight gorillas in the group. Replacing him with another male will be challenging, as it has taken years for the group to establish its relationships.
You decide

Credit: McGraw-Hill Education

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