On May 28, 2016, the day after his seventeenth birthday, Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a little boy fell into the gorilla enclosure. When zookeepers called to the three gorillas in the exhibit, hoping to bring them inside, Harambe’s companions Chewie and Mara complied, but Harambe chose to investigate the boy. In the ten minutes that followed—Harambe’s last—he dragged the boy through the exhibit’s moat, stood him up, sat him down, and examined his clothes, his agitation increasing with the screams of the crowd. Fearing a tranquilizer dart would take too long to take effect and aggravate 440-pound Harambe, further endangering the child, the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team trained a sniper rifle on Harambe and shot him in the head, killing him.
The outrage that swiftly followed was extensive. People around the world called on the child’s mother to be charged with negligence and on the zoo to be punished for inadequate fencing, blaming both for failing to prevent the situation that led to Harambe’s death. Only a few voices called for the one change that could prevent this type of tragedy every time—an end to the imprisonment of self-aware, autonomous beings like Harambe.
The imprisonment of gorillas in this country began a century before Harambe’s death with Madame Ningo, the first gorilla brought to North America. A western lowland gorilla like Harambe, she would have spent her early life with her family in the dense vegetation of what is now the Republic of the Congo. In 1911, she was captured and transported to the Bronx Zoo, where she was offered meat and hot meals from a local restaurant. In less than two weeks, she was dead of starvation, a fate the zoo director at the time said she deserved for her—or, in his words, “its”—“obstinacy.”
From 1911 until the birth of Colo, the first gorilla in the world born into captivity, on December 22, 1956, all gorillas in zoos were captured in the wild, usually as babies so they would be most malleable to human handling. For each baby gorilla brought to zoos, people killed multiple adult family members as they tried to protect their baby. This continued, even after the birth of Colo, until the 1973 Endangered Species Act banned the import of live gorillas into the United States.
Harambe’s maternal grandparents, Lamydoc and Katanga, and paternal grandparents, Jimmie Gee and Josephine, were born in the wild. While Jimmie Gee and Josephine were estimated to be a year or less old at the time of their capture, Lamydoc and Katanga may have been five or six years old. None of them would have chosen to be torn from their wild lives, to watch the killing of their families, to be transported to a life of cages and companions chosen for, not by, them. Humans made those choices for them. From the time of their capture, humans would make every significant choice in their lives. On those days in 1965 and 1969, they lost their families, their wildness, and their autonomy—for themselves and all generations to follow them. Half a century later, their grandson, Harambe, made a choice not to heed the calls of the zookeepers to leave the exhibit. He made the first significant choice of his life, and ten minutes later, he was dead.
Josephine gave birth to three babies fathered by Jimmie Gee, but only one—Harambe’s father Moja—survived infancy. Katanga had seventeen babies with Lamydoc. In the wild, female western lowland gorillas give birth about every four years, nursing babies between births. In captivity, Katanga gave birth in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1998, and 1999.
The infant mortality rate is high in wild western lowland gorillas, but what about in captivity, away from the risks of poaching, safe from exposure to ebola, under the watchful eye of zookeepers, and with ready access to medical care? Of Katanga’s seventeen babies, one was stillborn, and one was listed as “aborted.” Three of Katanga’s fifteen remaining babies died within the first few days, three more within the first seven months. Two more died at three and four years old of colitis and pneumonia. Another was killed by Lamydoc when she was five. Moshi died at age 12 of hemolytic anaemia. Leonel lived forty years. Three are still alive. And what about Harambe’s mother? We will return to her story, to Harambe’s, in a moment.
Western lowland gorilla mothers in captivity have rarely grown up around infant gorillas, at least not babies being reared by their parents, and when they give birth to their own babies, they frequently reject them or don’t know how to properly care for them. Scientists have not definitively determined why gorilla mothers in captivity so frequently reject their babies—they do know that parent-raised gorilla mothers are more likely to raise their own babies and that the stress hormones in the urine of mothers who reject their babies tend to be higher than in those who don’t. Of Katanga’s fifteen babies who survived birth, only two were listed as parent-raised, and neither survived more than a few days. The rearing of four of her babies was unknown, and the remaining nine were raised by zookeepers, which explains how frequently Katanga became pregnant without a nursing baby to delay the return of her fertility. Sometimes zoos are able to foster the babies out to more experienced gorilla mothers, but often they are hand-raised like Katanga’s daughter, Kayla, like Kayla’s son, Harambe.
Jerry Stones, the facilities director for the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, took Harambe home each night to diaper and feed him. After Harambe’s death, he remembered him for his intelligence and for how nurturing he was to his younger siblings, often carrying them around. Harambe had one full sibling, his baby brother Makoko, but also lived and played with his half-siblings, especially his brothers Caesar and Nzinga.
On January 6, 2002, when Harambe was just two years old, his mother, Kayla, and 11-month-old brother, Makoko, along with Harambe’s two-year-old half-sister, Uzuri, died of chlorine gas poisoning after chlorine tablets left too close to a space heater released gas into the gorilla enclosure. His beloved brother Caesar survived the initial poisoning and was placed on a ventilator but later died of the effects of the chlorine gas. We don’t know whether Harambe was conscious to witness the death of his mother and siblings, as his grandparents had witnessed the death of their families, but we can assume he felt their loss.
Eleven years later, Harambe would lose his father when Moja collapsed suddenly in his indoor housing structure on April 15, 2013. Moja was 29 years old. The zoo determined the cause of Moja’s death was heart disease, which kills 41% of captive gorillas in North American zoos. Some die suddenly, like Moja; some die under anesthesia, and others present with clinical signs like grabbing their chests, coughing, withdrawing from their companions and being unable to tolerate exercise. Had Harambe lived, his heart may have scarred into fibrosing bands of muscle, unable to pump his blood effectively, just like the hearts of 70% of captive adult male gorillas.
Scientists and veterinarians are hard at work trying to determine whether the gorillas’ heart disease is a result of the greater body fat found in captive gorillas, who have much less space in which to exercise, or whether it’s because their diets don’t contain enough fiber and resistant starch, which alters their microbiome. Or maybe, it could be that their diet lacks African wild plants, such as Aframomum melegueta, a member of the ginger family that may be one of the world’s most potent anti-inflammatories. A. melegueta, or Grains of Paradise, makes up 80-90% of the diet of wild western lowland gorillas, who also use it to construct nests.
In the most recent survey, over three decades ago, 69% of captive gorillas observed in North American zoos engaged in a behavior known as regurgitation and reingestion, in which they regurgitate food into their hands and then reingest it. When gorillas under age five were excluded, the prevalence increased to 84%. In a 2018 review of research on regurgitation and reingestion in the International Zoo Yearbook, S.P. Hill writes, “[Regurgitation and Reingestion] is an abnormal behaviour because great apes are not anatomically adapted to regurgitate their food as part of their normal feeding processes, and because this behaviour has not been observed in members of the species living freely in the wild, in conditions that would allow a full behavioural range.”
Maybe regurgitation and reingestion is a coping mechanism to help reduce the stress of captivity, but researchers believe it may also be a result of inadequate diets as well as the limited amount of time gorillas in captivity spend eating compared to foraging behavior in the wild. While the lives and diets of captive gorillas have improved since Madame Ningo’s death, over a century later humans are still trying to figure out how to care for captive gorillas.
Life in the wild for western lowland gorillas is not without its own dangers. The individuals who make up wild populations are threatened by habitat destruction; diseases such as ebola; poaching; and other threats, most of them due to humans. Efforts to protect wild gorillas and the places they live are critical to the survival of mountain, eastern lowland, western lowland, and cross river gorillas. Removing the autonomy of self-aware beings and breeding them in captivity as forced “ambassadors” of their species with no plans or ability to ever release them into the wild, all in an attempt to save the species as a whole from the destruction humans have caused and continue to cause to their natural environments, is not the answer.
Most scientists who study wild gorillas have studied mountain gorillas because lowland gorillas, both eastern and western, live in such dense vegetation that it is difficult to observe them. No baby mountain gorillas trapped in the wild survived in captivity, so all captive gorillas are lowland gorillas, mostly western lowland gorillas like Harambe. In other words, the animals scientists have difficulty studying in the wild because they live their lives hidden away in thick vegetation are those who are on display in zoos. If zoos were able to approximate the dense vegetation of western lowland gorilla habitat in the wild—and many zoos have made minor improvements over the years—zoo visitors would then be unable to see them. In zoos, western lowland gorillas show more abnormal behavior, like spinning, rocking and teeth clenching, as well as banging on the exhibit glass when there are lots of human visitors vs. when there are few—an occurrence they can neither predict nor control, in environments designed for them to be seen rather than to live hidden away, as they do in the wild.
Western lowland gorillas in the wild will sometimes move social groups, and there seems to be less intergroup aggression than in mountain gorillas. But when they choose to move social groups, it is exactly that—their choice. In zoos, Harambe’s companions were chosen for him, and as anthropologist and NhRP supporter Barbara J. King told Pacific Standard, “… if you think about it, gorillas are taken from zoo to zoo all the time. They’re being circulated among zoos mostly for healthy breeding. So it can happen that one day, you wake up and your companion of the last 10 years is gone. There’s no way to explain to a gorilla, ‘Your companion has gone to a zoo across the country.’”
From one day to the next, Harambe left the gorillas and people he knew in Texas and was moved to Ohio on September 18, 2014. He would not go outside again until April 14, 2015; he would not share space with another gorilla until April 28, 2015, when he was introduced to Chewie and Mara, who had been housed next to him during the three gorillas’ long winter indoors.
The animals in zoos do not know there are Dangerous Animal Response Teams trained to kill them in their captive environments if they are deemed a threat that cannot be neutralized in nonlethal ways. After Harambe’s killing, there was no update to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ guidelines for emergency weapons response teams from 2015 because the Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team did exactly what they were trained to do. There is no doubt the people who knew and loved Harambe and those who made the difficult choice to kill him were traumatized, that all the people who witnessed the little boy being dragged through the gorilla enclosure and the death of Harambe were traumatized, but the reality is this: As long as we prioritize the entertainment or even the education of humans first, rather than the needs, especially the need for freedom, of self-aware, autonomous nonhuman beings like Harambe, they will continue to die—of heart disease, of accidental poisonings, of maternal neglect, of stress, of inappropriate diets, of gunshots to the head. The choice to do right by them, beginning with recognition of their fundamental right to liberty, is ours to make.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. Our groundbreaking work challenges an archaic, unjust legal status quo that views and treats all nonhuman animals as “things” with no rights. As with human rights, nonhuman rights are based on fundamental values and principles of justice such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness. All of human history shows that the only way to truly protect human beings’ fundamental interests is to recognize their rights. It’s no different for nonhuman animals. To join the fight, click here. To donate and help the NhRP build a future in which nonhuman rights are protected alongside human rights, click here.