Harambe’s Behavior May Have Been Normal Gorilla Play

Experts doubt that the gorilla was abnormally aggressive—but still think the Cincinnati Zoo made the right decision to shoot him.

Harambe—the western lowland gorilla shot and killed by Cincinnati Zoo officials on Saturday—wasn’t acting with abnormal aggression when he dragged a young child around after the boy fell into his enclosure.

“It’s difficult to say whether this was an aggressive display toward the crowd or a playful interaction,” says Terry Maple, an expert in animals’ psychological responses to captivity and the former head of Zoo Atlanta. “[But] I don’t think there was any real aggression toward the child.”

In fact, he leans toward interpreting Harambe’s behavior as playful, similar to the way adult male gorillas sometimes play with their offspring.

“To tell you the truth, what I saw in that film looked normal to me—in other words, normal gorilla behavior,” he says. “Sometimes, when male [gorillas] steal babies, they will grab them by the ankle or the hand and run around with them.”

Despite Harambe’s normal-looking behavior, Maple says that he thinks the Cincinnati Zoo ultimately made the right, albeit difficult, decision to shoot the gorilla.

The move has been lambasted by animal rights groups because western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. There are fewer than 95,000 individuals in the wild, and their numbers have declined by at least 60 percent in the past 20 to 25 years. Commercial hunting for the bush-meat and wildlife trade, along with outbreaks of Ebola, have caused their numbers to drop precipitously since the 1980s. About 765 of the gorillas live in captivity in zoos.

Maple says that the zoo’s primary concern was, and should have been, the child’s life—not the motive behind Harambe’s behavior.

“I feel terrible for the people who made that decision, but I think there’s unanimity in the zoo world that they would have done the same thing,” Maple says. “The public needs to have an understanding that it’s a difficult, complex situation.”

Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, agrees, noting that while Harambe at times appeared to act protectively, zoo officials were left with no other choice than to shoot him.

“The more I think about it, and the more evidence surfaces, the fewer viable options I see that they had,” he wrote in an email. “There was not the luxury of wait-and-see. A gorilla is so immensely strong that even with the best of intentions—and we are not sure that Harambe had those—the child's death was a probable outcome.”

Harambe’s immense strength would have made even playful behavior dangerous for the child, says Maple, and the enclosure made sedating Harambe challenging and highly risky, requiring a particularly long shot with a tranquilizer dart gun.

What’s more, sedatives take several minutes to set in, potentially agitating Harambe and increasing the risk of the child getting hurt or killed. The enclosure’s moat, a buffer zone, also posed a drowning risk.

Maple emphasizes, however, that the tragic incident has left zoo professionals—especially the Cincinnati Zoo’s—in a profound state of mourning.

“Those of us who work with [gorillas], we love them,” Maple says. “It’s as if a human died.”

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