One lesson we can take from this sad episode is the need to be realistic about the conditions in which gorillas and other captive animals live. If we accept that gorillas are going to be kept in zoos, we need to make sure those zoos don’t fail these animals by letting situations like this arise.
Gorillas are obviously potentially dangerous to humans. We are a danger to them too, not least because our genetic closeness makes gorillas vulnerable to many human diseases.
Harambe with the child.
As unpalatable as it seems to zoo visitors who might want to see animals living as “naturally” as possible, gorillas need to be kept behind glass, steel mesh or wide divides – for their own safety as well as ours.
Safety-first zoo design
One of the biggest questions about the Cincinnati Zoo incident is how the young boy could so easily have fallen into Harambe’s enclosure and come into direct contact with him. In light of this, there are certain principles that can be followed for the safe design of enclosures for large animals.
If an outdoor enclosure has some type of moat for containment, it may be a deep concrete moat with shallow water (less than 50cm) for gorillas to use without risk of drowning (gorillas can’t swim).
According to one set of recommendations, the typical minimum barrier should be 3.65 m high and 3.65 m across, but there is no law concerning minimum standards for gorilla enclosures. For extra security, a second barrier, sometimes electrified, is needed to keep people away.
In terms of minimum standards, the Cincinnati Zoo enclosure is suitable.
But for great apes such as gorillas, it should no longer be acceptable simply to meet minimum standards. This is as true for containment as it is for the animals' other needs: space, complexity, and behavioural and psychological stimulation. The cost of building optimal enclosures for gorillas runs into millions of dollars, which places constraints on zoos who rarely have the funds to upgrade or redevelop enclosures. Who should fund these improvements?
All zoos have regulations and procedures to follow for risk management, including animal escape and recapture. Additional precautions are taken for all incidents or interactions with those considered dangerous species (such as big cats, great apes, elephants and so on).
There are strict legal requirements for protecting the public. But because of the rarity of such events, zoo staff may be inexperienced with situations involving human intruders (accidental or otherwise) in an exhibit.
Are gorillas ‘gentle giants’?
In 1996, a three-year-old boy fell into a similar enclosure at Brookfield Zoo. While the zoo visitors were also screaming and yelling, an eight-year-old female gorilla, Binti Jua, “rescued” the boy by carrying him to zoo staff at a side entrance. As animal researcher Marc Bekoff points out, Binti Jua was hailed as a gentle “heroine”, whereas Harambe was treated as a threat, but in both cases the gorillas were in situations where they had no control over the outcome.
Are gorillas gentle giants? Image via iStock.
It is impossible to say for certain whether Harambe would have become aggressive. He appeared to show behavioural signs of stress – hardly surprising given that people were shouting and screaming at him. Gorillas are sensitive and respond to non-verbal behaviour, such as towering over them or staring at them, which can be seen as a threat.
When faced with a stressful, noisy and threatening situation, gorillas – like most other animals, humans included – have a physiological “fight or flight” response. It is hard to predict how any individual will react under stress, but based on the video footage, Harambe did not appear to be behaving aggressively.