Harambe, the Internet and People

The tragic shooting of the Western Lowland Gorilla Harambe at Cincinnati Zoo has sparked a media sensation. Whilst the decision to shoot Harambe after a young boy fell into his enclosure is bound to remain controversial there is a lot we can learn about people from their reactions on the Internet. I’ve listed these into 5 handy points, but before you read on be aware that this post is based on opinion rather than objective facts.

1) People are fast to use a popular event or story to further their own ideologies. For example, posts from Vegan sites saying “1 gorilla, millions outraged. 20,000 cows a day, no one seems to care” were appearing in my Facebook feed in under 24 hours from the event taking place. There are many other posts from other groups using the Harambe story for their own purposes but this was the first I saw. Whilst its tragic that 20,000 cows are slaughtered a day for the meat industry there is little to no risk that cows are going to go extinct. With a population estimated at around 1.4 billion Cows are doing pretty well. In fact they are doing better in terms of numbers than at any other point in their history. Western Lowland Gorillas however, have a current population around the 100,000 mark which according to the IUCN is decreasing. It has been argued that speciesism has an effect on the magnitude of our reaction to the killing of Harambe and I can certainly see this line of reasoning. I would argue that the fact that it is so easy to anthropomorphise the actions of Harambe makes it so much easier to see him as a victim.

2) We’re quick to exonerate the Gorilla of all blame. In fact we’re even quicker to anthropomorphise the Gorilla’s behaviour . PETA in their statement to the Mirror pointed out Gorilla’s very human characteristics especially the emotional ones. We feel closer to the Gorilla than to any of the witnesses or keepers as a result. Don’t think that I agree with this portrayal of an animal with very human emotional characteristics. We are still, at the end of the day, different species and as a result there is no way to know if in that moment that child was threatened with the prospect of violence or that the Gorilla was protecting the child.

3) It isn’t the first time that a child has fallen into a zoo enclosure. A similar incident happened 30 years ago when a boy fell into a Gorilla enclosure. Maybe its about time to review the safety of such enclosures for the public. By this I mean in the context of the public getting themselves in trouble not so much the animals doing harm. Zoos in general do an excellent job of making sure the animals don’t get out and that people don’t get in but there is always room for improvement.

4) It’s amazing how fast 100,000 people managed to get together and sign a petition calling for criminal charges to be brought against the parents of the boys. Snail mail would never have managed this. Just think how powerful, even more how dangerous, the internet can be in the heat of the moment before rationality prevails. Emotional responses to events are inherently snap judgements based on little actual evidence. Is it fair to judge somebody before trial?

5) What will be the long-term impacts of the Harambe story? How will this event effect both Gorillas in zoos and the conservation effort to protect those left in the will? Will this just be another few weeks of scaremongering, blame and gossip from the papers or will it develop into something more positive for the species?

Psst. In case you didn’t know what Anthropomorphise means it’s basically the idea that we can make non-humans seem human by describing them with human traits and emotions.

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