Dr. Paul Waldau
Director of Anthrozoology Master of Science graduate program – Canisius College
“When will zoos stop killing gorillas?” was the first thought that occurred to me when I heard about the tragic death of Harambe. Admittedly, I have a bias—I’m on record as not supporting forms of captivity that publicly or privately exhibit, and thereby subordinate, complicated living beings like gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, elephants, cetaceans, and so many others who, for reasons of their own health, need free lives in their own natural communities. Beyond causing the obvious moral problems produced by such domination and coercion of these animals for the alleged benefit of humans, zoos also imprison us by impoverishing our human imagination in a variety of ways, such as what it means to “encounter” or be “educated about” another animal. In a very real way, such harm-creating exhibitions are more than institution-generated violence—they are, in fact, a long-standing version of structural violence, that is, violence built into the very fabric of our culture and politics. True, zoos could function in sanctuary-like ways that protect those injured and threatened animals who are in dire need of such protection from the onslaught of human “progress” and “development.”
But the intentional killing of Harambe is something quite different. It followed directly and relentlessly from how all of us fail to challenge the continuing exhibition of gorillas and other nonhumans for our advantage. The death of Harambe is our fault.
This avoidable death, while understandably lamented by the zoo administration, has premeditated features. Such intentional killings of exhibited animals are anticipated, even rehearsed—personnel are trained for such eventualities, and guns are intentionally within reach for this purpose. Such “contingency plans” follow inexorably from the fact that even in the face of holding gorillas so important that we exhibit them for the public, we hold them so unimportant that we anticipate having to kill them if one of us, by accident or our own choosing, becomes trapped in the prison we have created for them.
I applaud every kind of child protection, and I hope you do as well. But we lack moral courage if we do not admit that something is terribly wrong when an institution must create contingency plans to kill innocent nonhuman animals under the rationale of protecting children. We can better protect children by making the hard choice not to use inadequate exhibits, that is, not to permit children anywhere near a captive animal situation that can go wrong for the child. Thereby we would protect children and also stop zoos from killing gorillas or any other animals that happen to be unlucky enough to be intentionally confined to an enclosure that does not protect a visiting child’s life any more than it protects the interests of the gorillas imprisoned in the exhibit. Let’s put gorillas and other captive animals into true sanctuaries designed primarily for their best interests, not ours nor the financial benefits and prestige that today drive exhibition to the mass public.