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Did Harambe the Gorilla Have to Die? Here’s What You Need to Know

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

The furor over the fatal shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend, after a three-year-old boy fell into its enclosure, continued well into Monday night, with opinion increasingly divided on whether killing the large primate was necessary and justified.

The gorilla was shot by zoo officials Saturday after he dragged the boy around the enclosure. The boy escaped relatively unscathed, with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Here’s what you need to know.

The animal
The 17-year-old male western-lowland gorilla, Harambe, was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas and moved to Cincinnati two years ago for breeding purposes, his former caretaker Jerry Stones told TIME on Sunday.

Western-lowland gorillas are a critically endangered species, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reporting that their numbers have reduced by 60% over the past 20 to 25 years. Their population in the wild is estimated to be less than 175,000, according to the Cincinnati Zoo, with 765 more reportedly residing in zoos across the globe.

The zoo was hoping Harambe, a 450-lb. silverback or dominant male, would father more gorillas.

17 Critically Endangered Species

Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda. About 880 mountain gorillas, who have thicker and more fur than other great apes, live in forests high in the mountains in the Congo Basin. They are threatened by civil conflict, poaching, and an encroaching human population. Panoramic Images/Getty Images
Long-tailed pangolin, Manis tetradactyla, Congo, DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Long-tailed Pangolin, D.R. Congo. Also called scaly anteaters, these solitary, primarily nocturnal animals are native to both Africa and Asia. Although all eight species of Pangolin are protected, they are valued for their meat and scales, and are often killed and sold illegally. They could possibly be the most trafficked mammal in the world. Frans Lanting—Mint Images/Getty Images
Captive Yangtze Finless Porpoise Gives Birth To Second Cub In Wuhan
A newly born Yangtze Finless Porpoise swims with his mother at the Hydrobiology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan of Hubei Province, China, June 3, 2007. The Yangtze finless porpoise is the only porpoise in the world that lives in freshwater and has a level of intelligence comparable to a gorilla. Due to overfishing of their food supply, pollution, and ship movement, there are only about 1500 of them left in the wild. China Photos/Getty Images
Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) forages in understory, Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia
Javan Rhinoceros, Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia. After a subspecies in Vietnam was wiped out due to poaching, the entire population, about 60 individuals, of these animals can be found in one Indonesian park. Because of their low numbers, they are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, and inbreeding.Stephen Belcher—Minden Pictures/Getty Images
Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) twenty-six year old male, named Halik, reaching out, Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia
Sumatran Orangutan, Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia. The approximately 7,300 remaining Sumatran orangutans live almost entirely in the treetops of tropical rain forests, only rarely traveling on the ground. As these forests are converted into oil palm plantations or burned to clear land, the orangutans are forced into an ever smaller livable habitat.Anup Shah—Minden Pictures/Getty Images
black rhinoceros
Black Rhinoceros, Tanzania. Rhinos are one of the oldest groups of mammals on the planet. Because of demand for rhino horn in Asia, between 1970 and 1992, 96% of Africa's remaining black rhinos were killed. Today, there are about 5,000 black rhinos left.Kevin Schafer—Getty Images
Vaquita, Northern Gulf of California. Vaquitas, a small species of porpoise, are the world's most rare marine mammal - there are thought to be under 100 individuals remaining. Nearly 1 out of every 5 vaquita are killed by gillnets used for illegally fishing another endangered sea creature, the totoaba, which is valued for its swim bladder. Newscom
Sumatran tiger adult
Sumatran Tiger, Sumatra, Indonesia. These tigers are distinguished by heavy black stripes on their orange coats. Poaching is the biggest threat to these big cats, of which only about 400 remain.Mark Newman—Lonely Planet/Getty Images
Indonesia, Sumatra, Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus) bathing in a waterhole
Sumatran Elephants, Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Over two-thirds of Sumatra's natural lowland forest has been razed, cutting this elephant's habitat by 70%. The 2,400 remaining elephants contribute to a healthy forest ecosystem by distributing seeds wherever they go.Nick Garbutt—Science Faction/Getty Images
First Vu Quang Ox or Pseudoryx nghetinhensis ever captured eats leaves in a cage outside Hanoi
A captured Vu Quang Ox or Saola outside Hanoi, Vietnam, June 25, 1994. Discovered in 1992, the saola was the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years. They are found only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos and have been documented in the wild four times.Claro Cortes—Reuters
Leatherback sea turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, Galibi National Reserve, Surinam
Leatherback Sea Turtle, Galibi National Reserve, Suriname. Leatherback turtles are named for their shell, which is leather-like rather than hard, like other turtles. They are the largest sea turtle species and one of the most migratory—they cross both the Atlantic and the Pacific on their way from the Coral Triangle to the California coast. They are threatened both by fishing, where they are often accidentally caught and killed, and by illegal trade of their eggs. Frans Lanting—Mint Images/Getty Images
Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) female, Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia
Sumatran Rhinoceros, Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. These rhinos are the smallest living rhinoceroses and the only Asian rhino with two horns. Around 250 of these rhinos share a habitat with the, also endangered, Javan rhinoceros. Their biggest threat comes from poaching for their horns.Cyril Ruoso—Minden Pictures/Getty Images
Amur Leopard
Amur Leopard, Russian Far East. A rare subspecies of leopard that has adapted to life in the temperate forests of northern Russia and China. They can run at speeds up to 37 mph and jump up to 10 ft. vertically. Due to poaching for its fur, only 60 individuals remain.Billy Currie —Getty Images
AF07 ALA0114.jpg
Cross River Gorilla Limbe Wildlife Center, Cameroon. Around 200 individuals of this subspecies of western gorilla live in the rugged territory between Cameroon and Nigeria. They are at risk for hunting, as enforcement of wildlife laws in these areas is often lax. Danita Delimont—Newscom
Hawksbill turtle
Hawksbill turtle, British Virgin Islands. These turtles are found throughout the world's tropical oceans, where they feed on sponges that live in crevices in coral reefs. They are most threatened by the illegal trading of their shells, which are used to make jewelry and other ornaments.Armando F. Jenik—Getty Images
Endangered Chinese Tigers Find New Home
South China Tiger, Laohu Valley Reserve in Philippolis, South Africa on June 21, 2006. In the 1950s this species was hunted as a pest and is now considered functionally extinct. However, they can still be found in zoos and in South Africa, where there are plans to reintroduce captive-bred tigers back into the wild, as shown in the image here.Melanie Stetson Freeman—Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Western lowland gorilla juvenile male feeding
Western Lowland Gorilla, Bai Hokou, Dzanga Sangha Special Dense Forest Reserve, Central African Republic, Nov. 2011. These gorillas inhabit some of the most dense and remote rainforests in Africa. Because of poaching and disease, the gorilla’s numbers have declined by more than 60% over the last 20 to 25 years.Anup Shah—Getty Images

The backlash
Animal-rights activists have been up in arms, blaming the parents of the boy for not watching him closely enough as well as the zoo for not having adequate safety measures and shooting the gorilla dead rather than tranquilizing him. Several celebrities also voiced their opinions about the incident on social media.

Dozens gathered at a vigil Monday afternoon to mourn Harambe, although it was made clear that the vigil was not a protest against the zoo. Visitors have also been leaving cards and flowers next to a statue outside the zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit, which has been temporarily closed after the incident.

“Yet again, captivity has taken an animal’s life,” the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said in a statement. “The gorilla enclosure should have been surrounded by a secondary barrier between the humans and the animals to prevent exactly this type of incident.”

The defense
Thane Maynard, the executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo, justified the decision of his emergency response team in a press conference Monday, explaining that the primary concern was for the three-year-old boy’s life.

“When you dart an animal, anesthetic doesn’t work in one second, it works over a period of a few minutes to 10 minutes,” he said. “The risk was due to the power of that animal.”

Animal behaviorists have corroborated Maynard’s argument, with wildlife expert Jack Hanna telling ABC’s Good Morning America that there was “no doubt” in his mind that “that child would not be here today if they hadn’t made that decision … a dart takes too long.”

A woman named Michelle Gregg, purportedly the boy’s mother, published a Facebook post about the incident that has since been deleted.

“As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids,” Gregg said in the post. “Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today.”

Bystanders who witnessed the incident told CNN that the drastic step of killing the gorilla seemed necessary under the circumstances in order to save the toddler.

“From what we saw [the child] could have been killed at any second,” said eyewitness Bruce Davis. “You could look into their [zoo officials’] eyes and tell they had tough decisions to make. It was basically the child or the gorilla, and they chose.”

A statement released by the boy’s family, which did not reveal any of their names, announced he “was doing just fine” after his release from hospital and also expressed gratitude toward the zoo authorities.

“We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff,” the statement said. “We know that this was a very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla.”

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Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com