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Was the shooting of Harambe the right decision? A personal editorial...
There has been a flurry of controversy over the decision of the Cincinatti Zoo to shoot Harambe when a three-year old child fell into the gorilla exhibit.

Let's say at the outset that there's much information about this incident that remains to be gathered and that many people have been very quick in forming their own personal opinions. And any way you look at this event, it was a tragedy as Harambe, who suffered the most was also surely the one least responsible for the situation.


The comments below are being made personally by C. E. Steuart Dewar and are not intended to represent an official position of the Dewar Wildlife Trust on this incident...

This is what we know so far:

The child apparently was out of sight of its parents for long enough for him to duck under a barrier and then end up falling into the gorilla habitat below. It's easy to condemn the parents for not paying more attention, but I really doubt there's any parent out there who can honestly say that their own child never left their sight for more than a few seconds in a public area like a zoo or shopping center. And it's easy to condemn the zoo for an exhibit where this incident was possible, but the exhibit barriers had not only been in place for several decades without incident, they also met all the requirements of the AZA and USDA and were not that different from the exhibits at other zoos.

It's important that everyone acknowledge that the zoo was dealing with probabilities and not certainties. There was no certainty that the gorilla would not harm the child and no certainty that it would harm the child. There was no certainty that shooting the gorilla would be safer than trying to anesthetize the gorilla and no certainty that the child would not be injured if the gorilla were shot. And we can only make guesses as to what those probabilities are.

My own personal opinion is that the probability that the gorilla would cause a life-threatening injury or death to the child was somewhere around 10%. I only say this because 1% sounds a bit optimistically small, and 50% sounds too high. There have been at least two prior incidents where a child fell into a gorilla enclosure (Jersey and Brookfield zoos) and in both those instances, the child was basically unharmed and the gorillas exhibited no aggressive behavior. Jambo was 7 years older than Harambe, and BintiJua was only 8 years old at the time (and had an infant on her back during the incident). However, in both cases, the children were in a less conscious state than the child in this current incident, so there was a greater potential here for the child to act in a manner that the gorilla could interpret as a threat.

There will be arguments about whether Harambe's behavior was aggressive, or just a reaction to a noisy crowd some of whom can be heard screaming, but Harambe was definitely dragging the child by a limb in a manner that was not reassuring to any observers. At the same time, unlike many other species, gorillas are not naturally aggressive, so there was no fundamental reason to assume that the gorilla would injure the child for no reason, other than the surprise of seeing the child appear, and the noisy reaction of the visitors.

I have never seen a gorilla that didn't get upset when a tranquilizer dart was used and have seen aggressive gestures and reactions as well, and since tranquilizers in the best case take several minutes to have effect, that short period after the gorilla was darted could potentially result in more aggressive behavior than had been seen previously.

Shooting a gorilla is not a simple proposition. First of all, a powerful rifle has to be used - I would guess the zoo used something along the lines of a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum - and we are talking about a high-stress situation with a child in close proximity. A quick movement as the trigger was being pulled could have put the child in jeopardy and the damage caused by a bullet hitting almost any part of the child's body could well prove fatal.

However, as an AZA-accredited zoo, the special team assembled to deal with situations like this would have been practicing such scenarios on a regular basis, and would have some familiarity with both the animals and the enclosures. I initially thought that the likelihood of the child getting serious injured or killed might be in the 1-5% range, but probably not a lot higher than that since the nature of the enclosure would have allowed the shooter to get pretty close. I have subsequently been told that the shooter was a highly experienced marksman who practiced on a regular basis both at the Zoo and at a gun range - so that likely raised the confidence level of the Zoo personnel that the shot could be taken without harming the child.

So what do we conclude from all this? Before reaching a conclusion, I think a good question to ask is If you were the parent, and it was your child, what would you want the zoo to do? For many people, that question makes it a bit easier to understand why the zoo chose to shoot the gorilla.

Suppose the zoo told you they intended to tranquilize the gorilla and that the odds that your child would be killed by the gorilla before it passed out were about one in ten. Would you agree to take those odds with your own child? Or would you take the odds of shooting the gorilla which I think most Zoo Visitors would agree was significantly less likely to result in any harm to the child?

Some will take a somewhat more cynical view of the situation: if the gorilla is shot, it is unlikely the other gorillas will file a lawsuit against the zoo for unlawful killing. But if the child is harmed because the zoo chose not to shoot it, you can be sure in this litigious society that the lawsuits will not be long in coming. We would like to think that such considerations are not front and center, but I would not be surprised if someone raised that issue.

But on the flip side, shooting the gorilla is not going to be good publicity for the zoo either. A solution which involved saving the gorilla and the child would be vastly more palatable to both the zoo and the general public, so I think on that basis we should not dwell on the cynical aspects of the situation.

When trying to make a decision about a course of action, there are TWO things to consider:

1. What is the best outcome in the situation? (gorilla's life is saved and child is unharmed), and
2. What is the worst outcome? (child dies).

Often a decision is driven not by the hope for the best outcome, nor by a rational analysis of the statistical likelihood of each outcome, but rather by the realization that the worst outcome is simply not acceptable under any conditions. That balance can often alter the perception of what the best course of action would be. If the worst outcome is unacceptable under any conditions, then that option is often removed from the table, regardless of its statistical likelihood.

And then let's apply 20-20 hindsight further. Let's say that the zoo chose to tranquilize Harambe, and Harambe went ballistic and caused the death of the child. How many people currently condemning the Zoo's action for shooting Harambe would now still be supporting the zoo's decision to tranquilize? I think everyone would agree the latter number would be a lot smaller. And that particular outcome would cause a significant setback for gorilla conservation and welfare because the general public, upon seeing horrendous footage of the child being killed (you can be sure it would be on YouTube), would forever view gorillas as being dangerous and aggressive animals. Just as the fortunate outcome in the Jersey zoo established Jambo as the gentle giant and helped change the public's prior perception of gorillas as horrific animals.

So when all is said and done, I personally think the zoo had no choice other than the action they eventually took. The only alternative that I could see would be to have had the lethal weapon team with the gorilla already lined up in their sites as a veterinary team darted the gorilla with a far-higher-than-normal dose of Telazol and direct the lethal weapon team to shoot upon the first sign of any aggressive reaction. But this would also involve a greater risk, and assumes that for the 5-10 following minutes (it takes that long for the drug to take effect) that it would not aggravate the gorilla to the point of posing a substantially more dangerous threat. And suffice it to say the personnel on the scene had access to information that we don't have and which may have weighed on the final decision that was made.

At the Dewar Wildlife Trust, we chose not to have any lethal weapons on the property, and if a child had fallen into the exhibit (not likely, but anything is possible), we would have had no option but to distract and tranquilize the gorilla. Of course, we were dealing exclusively with a non-aggressive species - if we had had other species there, we would definitely have had to be in a position to provide a lethal response - something that is generally required by the AZA.

In closing, I also believe that when it comes to the safety of the exhibit that there is some merit in taking a Res Ipsa Loquitor approach - i.e. just the fact that the child was able to find its way into the exhibit indicates that there was an issue with the safety/security of the exhibit. Certainly a zoo has a Duty of Care towards the visitors in terms of ensuring their safety. That being said, I do not believe that the Zoo was negligent in any way (this assumes that the information available accurately reflects the nature of the exhibit), but rather this incident should encourage a review of exhibit safety and security at all zoos. Many exhibits are decades old, and in the past several years, the availability of sophisticated and inexpensive devices for security monitoring offer the ability to provide a higher level of safety. Motion detectors, PIR sensors, and webcams networked to a central security system which also provides zoo personnel with full access are things that simply weren't available when most zoo exhibits were designed. At my house, I have a driveway alarm that sends me a text message as well as ringing a bell, and I can view who is in the driveway from a webcam no matter where I am in the world, so I can choose to open or keep the driveway gate closed from a remote location. These types of technologies, which are now relatively inexpensive, could definitely provide a significantly higher level of safety at zoos for both the animals and the visitors.

C. E. Steuart Dewar
June 15, 2016

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