Trigger warning: Local animal experts weigh in on gorilla shot at zoo

A screenshot of the citizen-filmed video of a three-year-old boy approaching Harambe, which now has over 4.5 million views. A screenshot of the citizen-filmed video of a three-year-old boy approaching Harambe, which now has over 4.5 million views.

Updated June 7 with additional sources

A rare gorilla was shot and killed May 28 at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 3-year-old boy dropped 15 feet into the animal’s enclosure. In a video that went viral, the world watched in horror as the ape dragged the child through the exhibit. A professor of animal law at UVA says the zookeepers, who have been heavily scrutinized for killing the gorilla, made the right decision.

“Once the child entered the enclosure and was picked up by Harambe, there was no choice,” Margaret Riley says. “I think it’s hard to second-guess the decision here. If you’re wrong, a child may die.”

According to Riley, the field of animal law is rapidly changing, driven by the evolving and competing conceptions of animal ethics. But when one is faced with saving the life of a child versus that of an animal, “even a rare and magnificent animal,” one should protect the person.

She says the law does defend rare breeds of animals more than others, but not in the context of imminent danger to humans.

A potential legal case, according to Riley, is a negligence suit against the parents for failing to keep control of their child. Ohio’s Hamilton County prosecutor announced June 6 that the parents would not face charges.

“It’s probably a long shot, but someone might try to argue that the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla was an illegal taking under the Endangered Species Act,” she says. “I don’t personally think such a claim would have merit and it would be hard to find someone who has standing to bring the suit in any case.”

Harambe, the 17-year-old, 450-pound western lowland gorilla—of which there are fewer than 175,000 in the wild—was born in a Texas zoo and moved to Cincinnati two years ago.

While the morality of zoos is often questioned, Riley says they now make animal habitats more natural. But the president of a local animal advocacy group says that, while catering to customers, some entities lose track of an animal’s best interest.

Stacey Norris, president of Voices for Animals, says cases of gorillas attacking humans at zoos are “virtually non-existent,” but Harambe “still possessed an innate instinct—as many animals, including humans, do—of curiosity of the child and protection of his family and belongings when the child fell in.”

Perhaps he would have reacted differently if he were not a captive animal, she says.

“It is difficult to predict behavior of any living thing when it is put in a world unnatural and distant from where it should be,” Norris says. “Moving zoos from a mindset of captivity and display to a more natural sanctuary-like setting seems like the right thing to do.”

 

Original story:

Over the weekend, a rare silverback gorilla was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 3-year-old boy dropped 15 feet into the animal’s enclosure at Gorilla World—under a rail, through wires and over a moat—to make contact with the animal. In a video that went viral, the world watched in horror as the beast dragged the child through the exhibit. A professor of animal law at UVA says the zookeepers, which have been heavily scrutinized for killing the gorilla, made the right decision.

“I think that once the child entered the enclosure and was picked up by Harambe, there was no choice,” Margaret Riley says, because the child was in imminent danger. “I think it’s hard to second guess the decision here. If you’re wrong, a child may die.”

According to Riley, the field of animal law is rapidly changing, driven by the evolving and competing conceptions of animal ethics. But, in her opinion, when one is faced with saving the life of a child versus that of an animal, “even a rare and magnificent animal,” one should protect the human.

She says the law does protect rare breeds of animals more than others, but not in the context of immediate danger to humans.

Harambe, the 17-year-old, 450-pound western lowland gorilla—of which there are fewer than 175,000 in the wild—was shot by a zookeeper with a rifle, rather than a tranquilizing gun that could have spared his life.

“I don’t know enough about the facts of the case to know whether better choices could or should have been made before that life-or-death choice,” Riley says, but she wonders if it was too easy for the child to enter the gorilla’s enclosure. Zoos now attempt to make animals’ habitats more natural to offer more freedom, she says, and to give visitors a way to interact with the animals more realistically. “That can increase the chances of something like this happening. But it may also have been a fluke.”

While some have argued that a gorilla in the wild would not have harmed the child, she says the behavior of an animal that has spent its entire life in captivity may differ.

A potential legal case, according to Riley, could be a negligence suit against the parents for failing to keep control of their child.

“It’s probably a long shot, but someone might try to argue that the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla was an illegal taking under the Endangered Species Act,” she says. “I don’t personally think such a claim would have merit, and it would be hard to find someone who has standing to bring the suit in any case.”

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