The parking lot was full, the peacocks were openly flaunting around, the smell of animal poop filled the air, and guests were taking in some of the very best zoological exhibits in the world.
The Cincinnati Zoo opened in 1873, making it the sixth oldest zoo in the entire country. The zoo is now home to over 500 species off wildlife and 3,000 species of plants. It has been awarded as the best zoo in the country on several occasions from entities like USA Today and the Association of Zoo’s and Aquariums. The zoo grounds have also been dedicated as a National Historic Landmark.
Despite such impressive accolades, the zoo has never received more attention than it did on this fateful date 5 years ago, when our sweet silver backed prince was tragically sent on up to the great spirit in the sky.
The zoo’s gorilla exhibit was built in 1978 and it was revolutionary for its time.
The natural open air rainforest habitat gave the exhibit a feeling of wild authenticity. With 48 gorillas having been born on site, the zoo leads the country in that regard. The zoo also holds the record for having 6 gorilla births in one year in 1995. The zoo still houses a 51 year old gorilla named Samantha, who is one of the oldest captive gorillas in the world.
No gorilla on earth is more famous than Harambe though, the beast who lost his life 5 years ago today.
Harambe was a 17 year old, 440 pound male gorilla who was shot by zoo officials after a 3-year-old boy accidentally found his way into the gorilla exhibit.
Video footage of the gorilla dragging the boy around quickly went viral on the internet, and the subsequent shooting of the gorilla sparked controversy and escalated the story to global attention.
While the boy was promptly rescued and swiftly transported to a local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, the fallen Harambe was immortalized as a legend in his own right after being put down by zoo officials.
His shooting was quite polarizing, with some folks claiming that the gorilla did nothing wrong and was simply trying to rescue the boy out of the water.
The boys parents also drew swift criticisms for not keeping a watchful eye on their child, however, they defended the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla. Many people disagreed with that decision, and the gorilla’s death drew outrage from media personalities like Ricky Gervais and Pierce Morgan.
The situation also sparked debate on social media, with many people arguing that there was no need to shoot Harambe and others claiming it was a split-second decision that likely saved the young boy’s life. Zoo officials reported that tranquilizer darts take too long to kick in, and they were worried that it would have agitated the gorilla and provoked him to attack the boy.
Despite pushback against the decision to put the gorilla down, Zoo Director Thane Maynard stood by the decision, stating:
“The child was being dragged around … His head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing. The child was at risk.”
The decision to shoot the gorilla was also defended by then presidential candidate Donald Trump, who said:
“I think it’s a very tough call. It’s amazing because there were moments with the gorilla the way he held that child it was almost like a mother holding a baby. It looked so beautiful and calm. And then there were moments where it looked pretty dangerous
I don’t think they had a choice. I mean, probably they didn’t have a choice. You have a child, a young child who’s at stake, and it’s too bad there wasn’t another way.”
Witnesses say they heard the boy proclaim he wanted to go down and see the gorillas before proceeding to climb over a 3-foot-tall fence, crawl through 4 feet of bushes, and fall 15 feet into a moat of shallow water.
Zookeepers nearby immediately signaled for the three gorillas in the habitat to move to the indoor portion of the exhibit and two female gorillas followed that command. However, the curious Harambe climbed down into the moat to investigate what was splashing around in the water.
It was a decision that would cost him his life.
According to reports, Harambe appeared to became increasingly agitated and disoriented by the screams of terrified onlookers. He dragged the child through the water for several minutes, sometimes appearing to prop him up while other times appearing to push him into the ground. Harambe also began exhibiting a behavior known as “strutting,” whereby he walked around with his legs and arms stiffly flexed and extended to appear extra intimidating. It’s a common display of dominance with gorillas, but it was behavior that could have become dangerous should the silverback have thrown the boy around too roughly.
The gorilla then carried the child out of the moat onto dry land. Soon after, a single rifle shot rang out and Harambe’s life was over. According to Cincinnati firefighters, the boy was on the ground between Harambe’s legs when the shot was fired by a specialized zoo employee who was armed, trained, and on hand for just such an emergency.
While obviously the safety of the child was priority #1, Harambe will still go down in history as the most famous gorilla ever.
So on today, the 5th anniversary of his tragic passing, let’s all crack open a cold beer and pour one out on the ground for our homie Harambe.
As someone who was born and raised in Northern Kentucky, just a few miles south of the Cincinnati Zoo, this story hit home for me.
I frequently attended summer camps at the zoo throughout my childhood, and I spent a lot of time observing the gorillas. It was almost like I knew Harambe and had lost a friend. While my younger years at the zoo played a major part in kickstarting my interest in becoming a wildlife biologist, I never imagined that one of the gorillas being gunned down would be what the zoo would be most known for.
As far as how I went from being a wildlife biologist to working for Whiskey Riff, that’s a story for another day.
Shortly after his passing, my nephew and I were able to visit Harambe’s memorial to pay our respects to one of our hometown heroes.