The recent killing of a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo serves as a stark reminder of the safety lapses—for animals and humans alike—that continue to affect zoos worldwide, including in the United States.
Officials at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, in an effort to protect a young child who had fallen into the enclosure.
Harambe’s death comes at a time when each gorilla life is vital: Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered, numbering fewer than 175,000 in the wild. There are about 765 gorillas like Harambe in zoos worldwide, 360 of which are members of a captive breeding program.
Since 1990, animals died during escapes or attacks 42 times in U.S. zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, according to a database compiled by Born Free USA, a nonprofit animal advocacy group. In that same timeframe, 15 zoo incidents resulted in the loss of human life, and 110 resulted in injury, including the Cincinnati Zoo incident.
Harambe is the first gorilla to be fatally shot in a U.S. zoo since the 2004 death of Jabari, a 13-year-old western lowland gorilla that escaped from the Dallas Zoo and attacked several people before charging at police officers, who ultimately shot him.
Primates in accredited U.S. zoos have injured humans on 15 separate occasions since 1990, accounting for less than a seventh of total human injuries. Primates have not been involved in a lethal U.S. zoo accident in the last 26 years.
A sympathy card rests at the feet of a gorilla statue outside the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sunday.
In contrast, big cats such as lions and tigers have injured or killed humans on 41 separate occasions since 1990, resulting in five deaths.
And on two separate occasions in 1986 and 1996, captive gorillas in the U.S. and U.K. were lauded for “protecting” young children who had fallen into their enclosure.
A visitor at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday described some of Harambe’s actions as similarly protective, in an interview with local news station WLWT. Zoo officials say that the child’s life was in imminent danger, as Harambe dragged the child through a moat surrounding the enclosure.
Globally, zoo standards for safety and animal welfare vary widely, and Harambe’s death is hardly the only accident to strike a zoo in recent weeks.
On May 23, a drunk man narrowly avoided injury after jumping into an enclosure at India’s Nehru Zoo Park and attempting to touch two lions. On May 21, officials at Chile’s National Zoo were forced to shoot and kill two lions, after a suicidal 20-year-old man jumped into the enclosure.
Several days earlier, a walrus drowned a visitor and zookeeper at China’s Yeshanko Wildlife Zoo, after the visitor entered the walrus’s enclosure and began taking selfies with it.