Harambe the Gorilla and the Value of Life

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Before the shot rang out it was a beautiful day in Cincinnati.

The zoo was packed with families enjoying an exciting view of nature’s diversity.   Over a million and a half people visit the Cincinnati Zoo every year. Considered one of the nation’s finest, it is home to more than 500 species of animals.

Harambe the Gorilla

Harambe, a Western Lowland Gorilla who was killed after a child fell in his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Among them was Harambe, a Western Lowland Gorilla, who had just celebrated his 17th birthday.

Harambe’s species is among the world’s most endangered.  A deadly combination of disease and poaching has cut their numbers drastically.  In an effort to ensure their survival, zoos around the world are participating in captive breeding programs.  The zoo in Cincinnati is part of this effort and leads the U.S. in lowland gorilla births.  They clearly value the fate of these incredible creatures.

Gorillas, especially the imposing male silverbacks, can look fiercely intimidating.  It is wise to be cautious.  A male gorilla standing upright can be six feet tall.  They can weigh as much as 600 pounds.  They are at least five times stronger than a human male, and perhaps much more.  In nature, the silverback’s role is to lead his social group and protect them from harm.  Their great physical power and stature make this possible.

Koko the gorilla.

Koko with one of her beloved kittens.

Yet despite their ability to tear a person from limb to limb, they are known as gentle, loving creatures- attacking only when threatened.  They are intelligent animals, one of the few seen making and using tools.  Koko, perhaps the world’s most famous gorilla, knows more than 1000 words of American Sign Language and has a fondness for kittens.  She has been a remarkable spokesperson for her species.

On that spring day in Cincinnati, Harambe watched the usual steady stream of people walk by when something odd happened.  A human child fell over the 15 foot ledge of his enclosure, landing in an artificial stream.  He moved to investigate.

What happened next is hotly debated.

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The video shows Harambe standing over the child, seemingly shielding him. For most who watched it, the video seems to portray Harambe protecting this strange, injured little human.  But watch the video a bit more and you see Harambe pulling the child roughly through the water.  Harambe naturally has no experience handling a human baby.  He may not have been trying to harm the child, but his immense strength was clearly far too rough.

A ladder leads from the bottom of the stream to the main body of the gorilla enclosure.  At some point, Harambe grabbed the child and carried him up the ladder.  Keepers had called the other gorillas back to their pens, but Harambe wouldn’t move.  Instead he dragged the child by the calf towards his cave, becoming increasingly agitated as the crowd around him screamed.

Some reported seeing him throw the kid in the air before tucking him under his legs.  One thing was clear to everyone- Harambe- whatever his motivations may be- was intent on keeping the child. “There was nobody getting that baby back from that gorilla — no one was taking him,” one witness said.

And now for a moment that must have been heart wrenching for those involved.  The staff of the Cincinnati Zoo, a staff dedicated to the survival of the lowland gorilla, faced the possibility of having to kill one.  Harambe was not responding to calls to leave his enclosure.  Shooting him with a sedative dart would momentarily agitate him and would take several minutes to take effect.  In that moment of pain and drug fueled confusion, Harambe might easily assume this painful attack was the result of this new creature in his midst.  In this confusion and agitation, Harambe could kill the child in an instant.  It was quickly apparent Harambe must be killed.

This was not a spur of the moment decision.  In preparation for this unlikely event, zoos everywhere have protocols in place so these life and death decisions can be made in an instant.  The zoo followed this protocol.

The staff quickly ushered the patrons from the gorilla exhibit, and as the last of the crowd left a shot rang out.  Harambe was killed.  The child was safe.

Harambe’s life ended and the outrage began.

One of the most surprising arguments that circulated came from author Bron Taylor. In a blog post he suggested that Harambe’s death was the result of “human supremacy.”  The idea is that a human life was considered more valuable than a gorilla’s life.  Furthermore, he argued, this human centered ideology was imposed by religious and moral authorities. “Our reactions to the value of humans and other animals are typically shaped by culturally deep religious roots,” he said.  “But it is really the ideology of human supremacy.”


The death of Harambe is without a doubt the result of human failure- but to think putting the life of a child over the life of a gorilla is bowing to an unnatural, learned concept of human supremacy is hogwash.

One of the most fundamental traits of a social creature is to love and care for one another. To put one of our own children on the same level as any other species is unnatural.


This is not stemming from a religious bias that promotes man’s supremacy. The basis for our desire to protect one another has its roots in nature and it has for millions of years.


dian fossey with gorilla

Researcher Dian Fossey showed the world how gentle and kind gorillas can be.

The real question is how do we live our lives in a way that ensures the survival of our own species as well as the beautiful, rich tapestry of nature. Gorillas are undoubtedly sentient beings. Whatever biological traits we may possess that give us a sense of self, or a “soul,” Gorillas have as well. They are, in almost every instance,  peaceful and loving creatures.

Harambe did not deserve to die. Our outrage at the senselessness of this gorilla’s death is real, appropriate, and natural. Putting the life of an animal over the life a child is not.

The death of this incredible gorilla is a result of a string of human failures.  Let’s hope we gain enough wisdom and insight to prevent such horrific events in the future- but let us also hope we never lose our sense of love and responsibility for one another.


To fail would be an affront to nature.




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