Animal Interactions: Did the US Zoo really have to kill a rare gorilla?

2016-05-31 10:39 - Louzel Lombard
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Cape Town -  The killing of a rare gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has caused widespread public outrage and criticism from animal rights groups, who say the animal was killed in vain. 

The incident took place at a “Gorilla World” exhibit over the weekend, when a toddler managed to crawl through a fence before falling into the 17-year-old gorilla's enclosure. 

Video of the incident was shared widely on the Internet (below). The boy survived without serious injuries, but the death of the gorilla— a member of an endangered species, who had turned 17 one day earlier —  is highlighting the plight of caged animals all over. 

“We did not take the shooting of Harambe lightly, but that child’s life was in danger,” Zoo Director Thane Maynard told reporters at a news conference. “People who question that…don’t understand that you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla.”

You can watch footage of the incident below: 

While we can't say what the outcome would've have been had Harambe been spared, we can take a step back and think about why we have to deal with unnatural incidents like these.

Are zoos, sanctuaries and parks still relevant and ethical? 

According to National Geographic, "many wildlife sanctuaries undermine the very mission they were meant to serve" in that they promote the very thing they are trying to stop - humans interfering with wildlife. 

"Animal lovers go to wildlife sanctuaries because they want to see animals up close and because they believe sanctuaries are in the business of taking care of animals that have nowhere else to go. But actually, nobody knows exactly how many exotic animals now live in captivity... "

Going to a zoo, or wildlife santuary or any place of animal interaction is a personal choice. But if you consider yourself a responsible and conservation-orientated individual, being mindful and informed about the establishments' practices are important.  

One thing remains indisputable: Zoos are unnatural. 

It’s a quick win with devastating consequence 

Any South African will tell you that no zoo or animal park compares to a visit to the Kruger National Park, for example. If given a choice between any zoo or aquarium in the world, and seeing the animals in their wild state – the latter will and should always win. 

But visitors don’t have the time or patience to put aside a few days to drive through SA's national parks. They want to go somewhere where they are guaranteed that advertised ‘African experience’, where they can see, feed and ride some of our Big 5. 

They want selfies with lions and elephants and the Kruger just doesn't provide this. 

So what do they do? They frequent and indirectly support places that operate under the 'cloak of conservation', which in actual fact only contributes to the unnatural caged-culture of wild animals. 

READ: Five lies you need to stop believing about the lion cub petting industry

How many examples do we need? 

Attacks on humans that occur where animals are kept in enclosures and cages, compared to the attacks on humans by wild animals, are exponentially more. 

Why? Because wild animals don't want to interfere with humans. The issues arise when they are forced to. 

Harambe the gorilla is, unfortunately, one of the most recent examples of where animals have had to bite the bullet because for humans' needs and ignorance. 

Harambe reportedly picked up the boy and moved him around. Even though the zoo’s director acknowledged that he was not attacking the boy, it was believed that a tranquilizer wouldn’t work fast enough.

So he was shot. Dead. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) condemned the move saying, "Zoos cannot even begin to meet these magnificent animals’ complex needs." But zoos, frankly, cater for the needs of visitors first. 

Much closer to home, in June last year, a US tourist was mauled to death by a lioness at the Lion Park in Johannesburg. Catherine Chappell, the tourist, had her window rolled down when one of the most aggressive lionesses in the park snatched her from the moving vehicle. 

The victim of the attack received little sympathy from South Africans and social media users worldwide. The lioness' life hanged in the balance for quite some time before it was decided that she won't be euthanised

'She acted within her natural instinct, and the tourist was in the wrong for having her window rolled down,' it was said at the time. 

But it makes one wonder: why has this not happened in the KNP, for example? Despite the much larger concentration of lions in the Kruger, these wild lions haven't snatched humans from their cars, or even the open safari vehicles.

Are zoos and animal parks able to reinvent themselves? 

Following the tourists death and several other incidents at the Lion Park in Joburg, the park has moved to a new location and hopes to offer visitors a more 'authentic safari experience'. While lion cub petting has been banned, the park still offers cheetah interactions. How 'authentic' an experience this is, is up to individual visitors to decide...

London Zoo is also trying to reinvent their offering. Visitors can now check into the zoo’s new Gir Lion Lodge, an overnight accommodation enclosure where guests can look and listen as nocturnal animals, including lions, go about their business.

A photo posted by Megan Foy (@meganfoy12) on

In March this year, SeaWorld also finally announced they will no longer breed killer whales in captivity and will soon stop making them leap from their pools or splash audiences on command.

While the highly controversial marine zoo's 29 killer whales will remain in captivity, SeaWorld at the time said that "new, inspiring natural orca encounters" are on the cards for visitors. SeaWorld's orcas range in age from 1 to 51 years old, so some could remain on display for decades more. 

It's by no means liberation of the current captive orcas, but the move shows that with enough pressure and public awareness, change is possible. It leaves the questions, how and when will zoos or places that subscribe to unnatural caged-culture of wild animals evolve, if at all? 

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