The death of Harambe, a beloved western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, has caused all sorts of reactions from around the world. The incident involved a three year old boy falling into Harambe’s enclosure and coming into the gorilla’s possession. The shooting of the gorilla to save the child has been questioned, as well as the parenting of a mother from whom the child slipped away and fell into danger.
Whether you believe we humans evolved from apes or not, there is no denying that they are primates and the closest living thing to us on this planet. As part of the “Family Hominidae,” great apes like Harambe have distinct connections to us; however, we must never mistakenly think that they are well adapted to living in captivity. Would you ever be well-adapted to living like that?
We are accustomed to taking our children to zoos – petting or otherwise – and there is an entire tourist industry of people going all over the world to see animals (usually kept in captivity of one form or another). Taking children to see these places seems like a normal thing to do, but the problem is that there is nothing normal about animals in captivity.
What I like to call this is “The Planet of the Apes Mentality” – one that has evolved over the years but is still, in a word, despicable. When something like this happens, everyone is pointing fingers and blaming someone or the poor animal itself. The killer whale who kills its trainer, the lion who attacks someone cleaning its cage, or the elephant that escapes and goes on a rampage, are all not responsible for the damage done because they are acting just as they would in their natural habitat, but humans wrongly expect them not to act that way in civilization.
Captivity is such an ugly word – and part of the mentality that I find despicable. Only a Planet of the Apes mentality can make people think it is okay to keep animals locked up. I understand that captive animals are a big industry, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. By thinking we are better than the animals with whom we share this planet, we have bred them and tinkered with them and experimented on them. Who has given us the right to do this and continue to do it? No one. They are living creatures and should be able to “live” in the wild and not just “exist” behind steel bars.
No one can say that Harambe would not have harmed the little boy; however, there is no proof that he would have hurt the child. The truth is that some witnesses believed the gorilla was protecting the boy, almost trying to get him away from danger as people were screaming and causing Harambe to drag the child away. On the other hand, a 450-pound gorilla could have easily killed the child in seconds, so the zoo shooting rather than tranquilizing Harambe can be judged as a split-second decision used to save the child’s life (apparently multiple tranquilizer darts would have been needed and taken time to be effective).
There has been viral outrage directed at the mother who allowed her child to slip away. Anyone who has had a three year old boy knows how quickly that can happen, and in a situation like this seconds count more than ever. It is very easy to point fingers at the parent, but she has been through such a traumatic experience and none of that sort of badgering will bring Harambe back.
What should be learned from this tragedy is that Harambe didn’t need to die. Born in captivity, his 17 years of life were spent as a prisoner. All the great apes, the whales, the lions, the elephants, and every other kind of animal and fish in the world that are either kept in zoos, aquariums, or theme parks are prisoners. This is the Planet of the Apes mentality, and yet when one of them breaks free from this unbearable life of detention, everyone acts amazed when they do what “wild” animals normally do.
The outrage here should be that Harambe had to spend a lifetime in jail instead of being free to roam his natural habitat. No matter how much we all like visiting places to see these magnificent creatures – and I have been guilty of taking my children to zoos and Disney’s Animal Kingdom too – in the end an incident like this should be a slap in the face and a wake-up call – animals do not belong in captivity.
Someone could argue then that we should not have pets of any kind; however, dogs and cats are domesticated animals and are not wild ones. The problem is when we take wild animals and try to domesticate them – which is why you don’t see people walking their wolves or cougars in the street. Wild animals belong in one place and one place only – the wild.
In the classic film Planet of the Apes, we see a world turned upside down where apes are the ruling class and men are wild animals. When astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) is captured and placed in a cage by the apes we get the irony but not enough to empathize with the apes in our own world. When Heston utters his iconic line, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape,” the human audience usually cheers because Taylor has spoken and shown the apes he is not just any animal.
Would it only be if animals could talk, those in captivity especially, and let us know how they are truly feeling. I imagine that we would hear quite a few them say, “Take your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human.” We would probably also hear them cry, “Please set me free.” If Harambe had been born in the wild instead of in a zoo, he would be alive now and roaming the jungle freely and would never have been in a position to be shot by humans in all their inhumanity for keeping him a captive in the first place.
There’s another apropos and iconic quotation from the film. When Taylor is thrown into a cage and he realizes he is a prisoner of the apes, he cries, “It’s a madhouse; it’s a madhouse.” He does so because he understands the inequity of being an exhibit in a zoo, a play thing of his captors to be examined, probed, and violated. Thinking of all the caged animals all over the world, they do too.
Photo Credits: CNN, Amazon