Someone at the Cincinnati Zoo caught much of what happened on video (not the shooting), and immediately afterward people blamed both the mother—why wasn’t she watching her son?—and the zoo director—was there no other option?
Few people have asked why a zoo, full of dangerous, or not-so dangerous animals, is even necessary. That might be because calling for an end to zoos has typically been the cause of poets and animal-rights activists. Most past arguments against zoos have focused on the insensitivity toward animals. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote two years ago in a piece for New York magazine titled, “The Case for the End of the Modern Zoo”:
I realize that to even raise this issue makes you sound like some kind of sour, rule-bound vegetarian, so let me make clear my position up front: I love zoos. My daughter is not quite 2, and the zoo brings out all of her best and least complicated emotions — awe, delight, empathy.
But concern for caged animals has caught enough mainstream interest that New York and California introduced bills that would outlaw killer whales kept in captivity. Their focus on killer whales is in large part owed to a 2013 documentary called Blackfish, but it proves that it has become a concern for more than a fringe of animal-rights advocates. So much so, that last March, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment said it would stop breeding captive killer whales. And if keeping an orca in large tank is unethical, then why not an elephant, a tiger, or a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla?
The argument for zoos is often that they serve to educate the public, they give people who can’t afford to travel a chance to see the animals, and that zoos serve as important conservation centers. There is a distinction, of course, between good zoos and bad zoos. In the 1980s, a study of animals at the San Diego Zoo found some had died from frequent tranquilizing, malnutrition, and that some had suffered repeated injuries while being transported. Since that report, and with a rise in scientists who study animal behavior, zoos have tried to improve conditions for their caged animals. This was partly the cause for more natural-looking enclosures––like the gorilla exhibit in Cincinnati––because “empty, boring, barren enclosures” can cause depression or aggression in some animals, including primates, according to a study by Plymouth University, in England.
In that regard, the Cincinnati Zoo is by all means a good zoo, providing Harambe a relatively comfortable enclosure. It’s not simple to accommodate the world’s largest primate. Gorillas are as strong as eight men, they can be aggressive, and they’re also endangered. For all those reason, they’re fascinating to watch. And unless someone planned to visit the forests of Central Africa, a zoo is the only place a person will likely see one—or for that matter a wolf, a rhino, or a rhinoceros hornbill (a bird kept at the Cincinnati Zoo). Of course, there’s TV, “but that really does pale next to seeing a living creature in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it, watching what it does and having the time to absorb details,” wrote David Hone, a paleontologist and writer who has defended zoos.