The Lethal Question

This blog was not intended to be zoological in theme, but recent events have stirred my need to speak out once more. Every visit to Facebook this weekend was greeted by pictures and posts regarding the events at the Cincinnati zoo. My heart absolutely sank into my stomach when I watched the footage of their 400 lb male gorilla dragging a four-year-old boy around the moat of his enclosure. That gorilla has paid with his life and now my heart goes out to him, the Cincinnati zoo, and everyone involved.

The comments following all of these posts vary in opinions from “shame on the zoo” to “shame on the negligent parents”. Of course their language was a bit stronger. My stomach turned as I read some of these comments. Everyone has an opinion and most of them are not kind. My husband once told me that opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and most of them stink. At the risk of adding to the stench, I offer up my humble opinion and insight.

When I started my career as a zoo keeper, I decided that I would be as well-rounded as I could be. I wanted to take every opportunity that I was presented with and gain every experience that I could. I worked with almost every animal at that zoo and in almost every area of the animal department. I was a zoo keeper, an animal presenter, a hospital keeper, a wildlife rehab keeper, a quarantine and hospital keeper. I spent a lot of time with my supervisors and managers. They were the people who I respected and wanted to learn from. Ultimately, they became my closest friends.

One opportunity that presented itself was to join the Emergency Weapons Team. This might sound like a conflict of interest or at least in opposition to my career in animal care, but I had reasons for considering this opportunity. Yes, zoos have lethal response teams as well as veterinary response teams, and they are equally and absolutely  necessary.

A couple of years before, the call came through that we had a large animal escape. I didn’t hear exactly what animal it was, I just grabbed the first thing I could find, which was a shovel, and headed there on a golf cart thinking, “I sure hope it’s not a leopard”. luckily, it was not. It was one of my animals, and although he could be dangerous, I could tell he just wanted to go back into the enclosure but couldn’t quite figure out how. We all managed to help him get home safely, but stress ran high nonetheless. Even more so because the weapons team was there ready to do its thing. At the time, that team was mostly made up of members of the maintenance and construction departments.

The image of rifles being pointed at an animal in my care has stayed with me always. The decision to end an animal’s life is never taken lightly by anyone that works with or near them, but sometimes it is necessary for our sake or the animal’s. After a lot of soul-searching and continued experiences with dangerous situations, I came to the conclusion that there may come a time when one of these animals might have to lose its life if a human life is in danger. That decision would benefit from knowledge of animal behavior, so I joined the weapons team and prepared myself to make that decision if I had to.

The other reason I had for joining the weapons team was my irrational fear of guns. Ironic? I feared them because I did not understand how they worked. This was a fear that I needed to get over, and I did. I was lucky to have a wonderful instructor and a supportive team.

The reason that I share all of this with you is so you understand where I’m coming from when I say that the Cincinnati Zoo absolutely  made the right decision. Based on the footage, Harambe the gorilla appears to be playing with the boy. Even if he did not intend to harm him (at that moment), it would have taken an instant to accidentally kill him. What would happen when he was done playing? He did not respond to his keepers, and 10 min had already passed when their Emergency Response Team made the decision to use lethal force. 10 min in a situation like that is an eternity. Tranquilizers would not be an option when an animal is in such close proximity to a person. That process can itself take 10 min or more. It is not safe to be near a darted animal. They stager, they can become aggressive, or they can go down instantly and fall onto the person, and on, and on.

A zoo’s #1 priority is safety; safety to the public, their staff, and their animals (in that order). Whether or not you belive a human life is worth more than an animal’s is irrelevant. A zoo must put human lives first. This was an extremely unfortunate and devastating situation where a human mistake lead to an animal’s death. We must remember that we are all human and are therefore prone to making mistakes.

We should now focus on preventing this sort of mistake in the future. I am certain that Cincinnati will do its part. We need to respect the rules that zoos have in place, they are there for a reason. They are there to protect us, their staff, or the animals. Incidentally, that is why you might see a keeper get overly upset at rule breakers (they endanger the animals they care for). Always keep in mind that these are dangerous and wild animals, and they deserve our respect. Although we cannot ensure that every parent is a vigilant one, we can all stop pretending that it’s not our problem. If we see someone, anyone, doing something unsafe, speak out. Help protect these animals and the zoos that care for them by speaking up. We cannot prevent all mistakes, but we can try to be more understanding of the situation and ask what we can do to better it.

I urge you to support the Cincinnati Zoo and its conservation efforts to save gorillas. Learn more at cincinnatizoo.org and spread the word.

My sincerest condolences to Harambe’s keepers and to the Cincinnati Zoo.

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