The Ethics Lessons In The Tragic Death Of Harambe The Gorilla

The primary lesson is this: Sometimes bad things happen and nobody deserves to be punished.

The tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla is exactly this kind of incident.

In case you weren’t following zoo news over the long weekend, what happened was this. On Saturday, a mother visiting the Cincinnati zoo with several children in tow took her eyes off of a toddler long enough for him to breach the three foot barricade at the Gorilla World exhibit and fall into its moat. Harambe, a 17-year old Lowland gorilla male, took hold of the child, and zookeepers shot the animal dead.

Then  animal rights zealots held a vigil outside the zoo to mourn the gorilla.  Petitions were placed on line blaming the child’s mother for the gorilla’s death. Other critics said that the zoo-keepers should have tranquilized the beast, a member of an endangered species. The zoo called a news conference to defend its actions.


1. Animal rights activists are shameless, and will exploit any opportunity to advance their agenda, which in its craziest form demands that animals be accorded the same civil rights as humans. Their argument rests equally on sentiment and science, and takes an absolute position in a very complex ethics conflict. This incident is a freak, and cannot fairly be used to reach any conclusions about zoos and keeping wild animals captive.

2. Yes, the mother made a mistake, by definition. This is res ipsa loquitur: “the thing speaks for itself.” If a child under adult supervision gets into a gorilla enclosure, then the adult has not been competent, careful and diligent in his or her oversight.  The truth is, however, that every parent alive has several, probably many, such moments of distraction that could result in disaster, absent moral luck. This wasn’t gross negligence; it was routine, human negligence, for nobody is perfect all the time. You want gross negligence involving animals? How about this, one of the first ethics essays I ever wrote, about the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin holding his infant son in one arm while feeding and taunting a 12-foot crocodile? You want gross negligence amounting to child endangerment? Look no further than the 6-month-old waterskiier’s parents. Taking one’s eyes off of a child  for a minute or two, however, if not unavoidable, is certainly minor negligence that is endemic to parenthood. Zoos, moreover, are not supposed to be dangerous.

3. The view of the law is that the zoo is strictly liable for any harm that comes from keeping dangerous animals. This goes way, way back: a 19th Century case involving a caged ape biting off a man’s finger (the idiot had dangled his finger through the bars) was one of the first cases I studied in law school. More recent are such cases as Marsh v. Snyder, which holds that “an owner or keeper of a wild animal is absolutely liable for the injuries the wild animal causes under all circumstances, and without regard to whether he knew it to be dangerous and ferocious or not.”

Got that, PETA? The zoo had no choice but to shoot Harambe, because if the gorilla harmed the child, the zoo was liable. [ UPDATE: After this article was first posted, I learned that the zoo’s visitors were separated from the moat by a three-foot barricade, presumably so children could see over it, not climb over it. Though the zoo says the arrangement passed government inspection, it obviously is inadequate. i said that the zoo was liable; let me correct that. The zoo was incredibly liable.]

4. The zoo would have done the right thing to shoot the gorilla even if it didn’t face liability. Ethics Fact: Human lives have a greater priority than animal lives under all circumstances. I know some disagree. They are kind, sweet, well-meaning people who are also deranged. This basic principle does not mean that humans should not respect animal life as much as possible. They should. However, when a gorilla, through no fault of his own, has the ability and opportunity to kill a child in a split second, there is no ethics controversy. The child must be saved. The gorilla must die. Fact.

5. Now we come back to the beginning. An enterprising child found a flaw in the zoo’s barricades that nobody had detected before. It was moral luck that he found it, and moral luck that no child had gotten through it before. The mother, like millions of mothers do every day, diverted her attention from her small child briefly. It was moral luck, and only moral luck, that in this brief time period her child was able to visit a gorilla. At that point, the mother had no control over anything. Harambe might have followed his trainer’s order to leave the enclosure, as two other gorillas did. He didn’t. Moral luck. He might have stayed away from the child. He didn’t. Moral luck. He might have snapped the child’s neck. He didn’t. Moral luck.

There was only one way to make sure the child would live, and that was for the gorilla to die. Harambe paid the price for varied and assorted mistakes, poor choices and bad fortune mixing and interacting as chaotic systems do, and he was the only completely blameless participant in the event. That is unfair and unjust and sad, but that is also how life is, often. Taking out our frustration and grief on any of the parties to this tragedy, none of whom would have willed it and none of whom, by themselves, could have caused it, isn’t ethical. It is emotional, irrational, and childish,

6. We should always look for ways to prevent tragedies from repeating; that’s just responsible and diligent. We should also, however, be capable of accepting that sometimes tragedies happen for no single reason, but because the cosmic dice come up snake-eyes, and someone or something is doomed by no fault of their own.

This was such a case.


Sources: QuizletAnimal LawNew York Times


31 thoughts on “The Ethics Lessons In The Tragic Death Of Harambe The Gorilla

  1. Jack,
    Wonderfully written. You encapsulated everything I’d thought (but lacked the finesse to articulate) every time I read more about the incident. Tragic indeed.


  2. And, as usual, the internet is full of people sending hate mail to the person they believe to be the mother, but who has the misfortune of sharing the same name of the person identified as such.

    From what I’ve read, the mother wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary at the zoo that would make her negligent. She didn’t sit the kid on the rail or let him dangle his feet under the bars. It seems that there was enough clearance on the bars to allow the child to slip through. That does bother me. The zoo should probably add another lower bar or put plexiglass between them so some determined child, as this one appeared to be, doesn’t accidentally slide in.

    The gorilla was dragging the poor kid by his leg. The boy could have hit his head on a rock or drowned during this ordeal. It’s very sad, but it had to be done.

  3. I do fault the parent for this — although I would never write a letter or attempt public humiliation in any way.

    I have two children. One is well-behaved and essentially velcros herself to my side. The other is a runner. Any zoo trip in our family involves two adults, because constant eyes need to be on her. She has no fear of other people or going off alone. I can’t see her getting into a gorilla pen, but I can see her running across the park with me unable to catch her because I am holding on to my other child’s hand. So the rule is two adults for any type of outdoor outing like a zoo trip.

    You know, they make harnesses with leashes for toddlers. Some people hate them, other people swear by them. But you do what you have to do to keep your kid safe.

    All that being said, if my daughter did manage to get into the gorilla pen, I would expect the zoo to shoot it. But, I would feel legally and morally responsible for that endangered animal’s death because of my negligence.

    • I agree with the nuance. I would hope the the parent feels guilty—I know I felt horrible the time Grant toddled off while I was chatting with a neighbor and almost fell into a construction pit. The parent was part of the scenario and should feel responsible, and if the parents are financially able and willing to start a memorial fund or buy a new gorilla, great. I’d applaud that. There’s nothing wrong with accepting responsibility when the law won’t make you do so.

      And yes, this is one case where leashes might work. So would hobbling the kid or locking him in a rolling plexiglass cube with airholes.

      • A rerun of the Great Toddler Leash Controversy? 🙂

        IIRC that was one of the most commented and hotly debated topics, right?

        • It was. And there are exceptions to every position…for example, I would use a leash on a toddler during the Zombie Apocalypse, or at a zoo where a sign said “WARNING! There are many surprising and invisible gaps in our cages and enclosures where a small child could slip through.”

          • If a parent has a child that runs off then there is nothing wrong with a harness and leash.

            And yes I was one of those children that if anyone let me out of their site for a second I was off and running. My mom started putting a harness on me when she walked out front of our quarters at Alameda NAS and saw a Navy Chief walking down the street holding my hand. She swore I was in my room asleep. The Chief had found me on the flight line watching the aircraft take off.

            • Child leashes are great for active kids who are known to run off. They’re also hardly foolproof. My younger brother was one such active child, and my mother got a kiddie leash for him. Before he’d turned four, he’d figured out how to get out of the thing without anyone realising it until we spotted him halfway down the aisle of the shop we were in at the time.

  4. From a friend of a Facebook friend (who actually LIKED it), this asinine comment:

    “All I know is, if that little brat doesn’t grow up to cure cancer and global warming, his life was not worth the life of a gorilla that very well could have helped get his own species from the brink of extinction.”

    • What an insufferable remark. I would unfriend the jerk on principle, at least for a while. He’s earned at least a time-out.

  5. No, no one should be punished, BUT…

    I can’t cite the source (probably radio news), but I had heard that the child kept telling his mother that he WAS going to go in there and the mother kept telling him No. If those were, in fact, the circumstances, and if I were the mother, I hope that I would have thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe I’d better keep a close eye on the little darling, since he seems to be telling me that he’s going to try something very stupid and dangerous.” If those were, in fact, the circumstances, I feel that the mother needs to inspect her parental antennas, because they weren’t working properly. Yes, as parents we all make and have made potentially dangerous mistakes. I haven’t heard her OWN her mistake, however. I hope she is not ignorant of the role she played in this tragedy. I am hopeful that she is, but as I said I haven’t heard any indication of it.

    AND the Zoo — I sure hope that they, and all other zoos, inspect their facilities in such a way to find flaws in their barriers, etc.

    • I had heard that the child kept telling his mother that he WAS going to go in there and the mother kept telling him No. If those were, in fact, the circumstances, and if I were the mother, I hope that I would have thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe I’d better keep a close eye on the little darling, since he seems to be telling me that he’s going to try something very stupid and dangerous.”

      And she said, “No, you’re not,’ which means “I say NO” but also “There’s no way, hon.” If my kid says he’s going to drive the car, and the keys are in my pocket, no should be enough. She didn’t think there was any way he could get in.

  6. Good work Jack. I agree with everything you said. You have to watch children every second. I took my granddaughter to the zoo to see the Pandas, lifted her up so she could see them and I swear I thought she was going climb out of my arms into the bearer. I immediately put her down on the ground.

  7. From a zookeeper, on Facebook

    I am going to try to clear up a few things that have been weighing on me about Harambe and the Cinci Zoo since I read the news this afternoon.
    I have worked with Gorillas as a zookeeper while in my twenties (before children) and they are my favorite animal (out of dozens) that I have ever worked closely with. I am gonna go ahead and list a few facts, thoughts and opinions for those of you that aren’t familiar with the species itself, or how a zoo operates in emergency situations.

    Now Gorillas are considered ‘gentle giants’ at least when compared with their more aggressive cousins the chimpanzee, but a 400+ pound male in his prime is as strong as roughly 10 adult humans. What can you bench press? OK, now multiply that number by ten. An adult male silverback gorilla has one job, to protect his group. He does this by bluffing or intimidating anything that he feels threatened by.

    Gorillas are considered a Class 1 mammal, the most dangerous class of mammals in the animal kingdom, again, merely due to their size and strength. They are grouped in with other apes, tigers, lions, bears, etc.
    While working in an AZA accredited zoo with Apes, keepers DO NOT work in contact with them. Meaning they do NOT go in with these animals. There is always a welded mesh barrier between the animal and the humans.
    In more recent decades, zoos have begun to redesign enclosures, removing all obvious caging and attempting to create a seamless view of the animals for the visitor to enjoy watching animals in a more natural looking habitat. *this is great until little children begin falling into exhibits* which of course can happen to anyone, especially in a crowded zoo-like setting.

    I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback’s postering, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares, and I have had MANY while working with them. This job is not for the complacent. Gorillas are kind, curious, and sometimes silly, but they are also very large, very strong animals. I always brought my OCD to work with me. checking and rechecking locks to make sure my animals and I remained separated before entering to clean.

    I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true. Harambe reaches for the boys hands and arms, but only to position the child better for his own displaying purposes.
    Males do very elaborate displays when highly agitated, slamming and dragging things about. Typically they would drag large branches, barrels and heavy weighted balls around to make as much noise as possible. Not in an effort to hurt anyone or anything (usually) but just to intimidate. It was clear to me that he was reacting to the screams coming from the gathering crowd.

    Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent) Why didn’t they use treats? well, they attempted to call them off exhibit (which animals hate), the females in the group came in, but Harambe did not. What better treat for a captive animal than a real live kid!
    They didn’t use Tranquilizers for a few reasons, A. Harambe would’ve taken too long to become immobilized, and could have really injured the child in the process as the drugs used may not work quickly enough depending on the stress of the situation and the dose B. Harambe would’ve have drowned in the moat if immobilized in the water, and possibly fallen on the boy trapping him and drowning him as well.

    Many zoos have the protocol to call on their expertly trained dart team in the event of an animal escape or in the event that a human is trapped with a dangerous animal. They will evaluate the scene as quickly and as safely as possible, and will make the most informed decision as how they will handle the animal.

    I can’t point fingers at anyone in this situation, but we need to really evaluate the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitor side. Not impeding that view is a tough one, but there should be no way that someone can find themselves inside of an animal’s exhibit.

    I know one thing for sure, those keepers lost a beautiful, and I mean gorgeous silverback and friend. I feel their loss with them this week. As educators and conservators of endangered species, all we can do is shine a light on the beauty and majesty of these animals in hopes to spark a love and a need to keep them from vanishing from our planet. Child killers, they are not. It’s unfortunate for the conservation of the species, and the loss of revenue a beautiful zoo such as Cinci will lose. tragedy all around.

    • Indeed. Very insightful comment.

      Wild animals, even in captivity, are incredibly dangerous even without being actively hostile, especially to a human child. Even quantified, strength like that is difficult to fully comprehend. That silverback could’ve pulled an adult, healthy male human apart like a baked chicken. It doesn’t bear thinking about what it could’ve done to the child.

  8. I agree. This a tragedy all around, and from every perspective. The loss of the gorilla is huge; the cost to the zoo is going to be huge; the accountability on the mother’s part is huge, and 3 or 4 year old will probably be traumatized for a long time. It is a perfect storm of errors. I can’t level full responsibility on the mother’s part, and the people webshaming her are simply morons. I think zookeeper Amanda Donahue’s comments are correct. The Cincinnati Zoo, and most likely other zoos, will take all kinds of measures to ensure safety in the rest of their exhibits.


  9. I have a very determined 4-yo. The idea that she could get IN to an exhibit when I turn my back isn’t nebulous to me. She’s smart and FAST when she wants. And I’m so saddened by every aspect of this story, but I’m also SCARED into being even more careful. Because it IS moral luck that it wasn’t mine figuring out how to get IN and coming close to death, except our last trip to a zoo ended early because she kept trying to run away and screaming every time I caught her. So I physically carried her, kicking and screaming, out of the zoo, with her 2 older cousins and older sister horrified at the scene. And she wasn’t even trying to get in with the animals… That mom may never sleep again.

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