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I’ve spent a lifetime with gorillas. Shooting them should be a last resort | Ian Redmond


31 May 2016 General News

The Guardian | Ian Redmond | Tuesday 31st May

The tragic events at Cincinnati zoo last Saturday triggered an outpouring of emotion all over the world. Shock at the killing of a splendid young silverback, Harambe, mixed with relief that the four-year-old boy came through it relatively unscathed (though doubtless traumatised). What lessons can we learn from such a sad turn of events?


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Harambe is a KiSwahili word meaning “pull together” – a good name for a gorilla because gorillas live in stable family groups and they do look out for one another. Over the past 40 years I have had the good fortune to spend hundreds of hours in the company of gorillas in their natural habitat. Most of them were habituated – that is, used to, human observers with an understanding of gorilla etiquette – but misunderstandings sometimes occur. I have been charged by a nervous female who thought I was too close to a member of her group, a blackback (adolescent) male who I was filming feeding; I have been walloped and bowled over by boisterous blackbacks, treating me just like one of the family, and on occasion, been on the receiving end of defensive silverbacks giving their awe-inspiring screaming charge. But I’ve never been hurt by a gorilla.

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These were free-living gorillas, though; if they don’t like your company they can leave. A captive gorilla doesn’t have that option. Harambe was born in captivity and raised by caring humans, but always with them in control – so it is unsurprising he didn’t know what to do when a small boy dropped into his enclosure. And given that the enclosure had crowds of agitated humans above him shouting and screaming, it is not surprising the gorilla was stressed. When stressed, silverbacks strut and display their strength – often by dragging vegetation, group members or other objects (including humans) – but this is not a forest with soft leaf-litter but a zoo enclosure of concrete and rock, so such behaviour carries more risk to the unfortunate person being dragged. In such circumstances, was Harambe’s death unavoidable?

Clearly if a silverback wanted to kill a child, he could do so in an instant. But he didn’t
My immediate response to the news was a deep sense of regret and sadness. Watching the shaky phone video, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the news websites, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, at one point held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing. The video is two minutes and 34 seconds long, however, and we are told the incident lasted some 10 minutes. Clearly if a silverback wanted to kill a child, he could do so in an instant. But he didn’t. It would seem that the danger was more to do with whether the boy might bang his head on a rock while being dragged.

Ian Redmond grooms Pablo, a silverback mountain gorilla, for parasitology research, Karisoke, Rwanda
‘If free-living gorillas don’t like your company, they can leave.’ Ian Redmond grooms Pablo, a silverback mountain gorilla, for parasitology research in Karisoke, Rwanda. Photograph: Lorna Anness
Without knowing what happened in the seconds leading up to the lethal shot, we are not in a position to judge the outcome. I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision and the zoo is standing firmly behind their use of lethal force.

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But there were other possible outcomes. In two other incidents where children have fallen into zoo gorilla enclosures (Jersey in 1986 and Chicago in 1996) neither the gorillas nor the children died. It is cogent to examine the specifics of each case before drawing conclusions about this one.

What else might have been tried? I agree with the zoo director who felt a tranquilliser dart gun, which delivers a painful jab in the behind, could have startled Harambe and in the time it would take to have an effect, might have put the child at greater risk. Gorillas have a reasoning mind, however, and if someone known and trusted by Harambe had tried to calm him, perhaps offering something that would immediately attract his attention such as a tray of his favourite fruits, a negotiated settlement might have been possible (all the while with the marksman in position to shoot if necessary). Perhaps this was tried, but there has been no mention of it.

If a softly-softly approach failed, a display of force could be the next option. When the Gorilla Doctors need to anaesthetise a member of a wild gorilla group in Rwanda, Uganda or DRC, a line of courageous park staff stand between the silverback and the patient, giving the vets time to operate to remove a snare or treat a wound. Perhaps it would even be useful for zoo staff to be trained in the kind of nonlethal equipment used by police, prison officers and the military to restrain, stun or disorientate an aggressor without killing them? The point I am making is there are several possible steps between the fear and panic (both human and gorilla) shown in the video clips of the start of this event and the use of lethal force that ended it.

Aside from the wider ethical issues of keeping apes (or indeed any self-aware, nonhuman beings such as elephants and dolphins) in captivity, this tragic incident raises two key questions. How is it possible – yet again – for a child to gain such easy access to any zoo enclosure? Especially when zoos are primarily a family attraction. Even if no gorillas were involved, surely public safety standards require that a child cannot get to a 15ft drop so easily. And second, will zoo professionals amend their emergency protocols to try non-lethal methods first, with a marksman ready to shoot but only in the event that lethal force is necessary? Then such tragic events might be avoided in the future.

• To support one of the charities helping protect gorillas in Africa visit www.4apes.com and click on gorilla. To learn more about gorillas in their natural habitat by visiting them virtually, go to www.vecotourism.org or download the new UN-GRASP ApeAppVR for those with virtual reality headsets.

 

Original article http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/31/gorillas-shooting-harambe-cincinnati-zoo

 

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