How Harambe the gorilla’s death unleashed the animal kingdom’s social media outrage


This weekend, Harambe, a 400-pound western lowland gorilla, was shot and killed by officials at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 4-year-old boy fell into the primate’s enclosure.

“It’s a sad day all the way around,” Cincinnati Zoo President Thane Maynard told reporters. “[The Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team] made a tough choice. They made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life. It could have been very bad.”

The boy made his way through the protective barrier before falling an estimated ten feet into the Gorilla’s habitat. According to the Cincinnati Fire Department, first responders witnessed the gorilla “violently dragging and throwing the child” when they arrived on the scene. He was reportedly treated for serious, non-life threatening injuries.

Harambe’s death has become a perfect social media tempest-in-a-teapot. It’s a tragedy fueled by a buffet of scintillatingly viral factors: a helpless child, a majestic exotic animal, a mundane family-friendly setting, and a shocking death. It’s a more dramatic version of the killing of Cecil the Lion, the sort of thing even your aunt who only posts pictures of her dogs on Facebook knows about.

A petition calling for “Justice For Harambe” on has amassed over 300,000 signatures in just two days. “It is believed that the situation was caused by parental negligence,” writes creator Sheila Hurt. “And the zoo is not responsible for the child’s injuries and possible trauma. We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.”

Another one with 107,000 signatories, entitled “Support ‘Harambe’s Law,’ for the gorilla killed in Cincinnati,” calls for new legislation that would create “legal consequences when an endangered animal is harmed or killed due to the negligence of visitors.” The petition is slated to be delivered to a local state representative and senator. All told, a search for the “Harambe” brings up nearly two-dozen similar petitions on the site.

Even celebrities weighed in on the actions of the Cincinnati Zoo.

Leading primatologist Frans De Waal offered his thoughts on the situation:

It is a horrible dilemma. I am sure the zoo staff is devastated (even though activists often depict zoos as prisons, they are full of people who deeply care about and greatly respect animals), and I myself am devastated that such a beautiful primate was killed. It is a great loss for the species, but we also mourn the individual life of a primate who had done nothing wrong. At least, we can all agree that people should watch their children!

That sentiment, that the parents share a measure of responsibility for the actions of their child, reoccurs in the reactions to Harambe’s death—one taken, in at least one instance, to a frustratingly absurd conclusion:

Harambe’s death is eerily reminiscent of a similar gorilla-related incident in which a child fell into a primate enclosure at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in 1996. There, one of the gorillas gently cradled the injured boy until rescue workers were able to reach him.

This story may not be finished though, thanks to sperm samples extracted from the gorilla. Speaking at a press conference this week, Cincinnati zoo director Maynard said simply: “There’s a future. It’s not the end of his gene pool.”

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