No matter whom you judge culpable, if anyone, we are all grieving over the violent death of Harambe – shot in his enclosure by Cincinnati Zoo officials who took the endangered male gorilla’s life for fear that the 420-pound great ape would hurt a 40-pound boy who slipped past his mother and made a beeline into the animal’s enclosure.
The moral debate over how to handle this situation reminds me of the many dining-hall discussion scenarios I heard thrown my way three decades ago when I started an animal advocacy group in college. Would you kill a grizzly bear if he was posing a threat to you? If you could flip a switch and redirect a hurtling runaway train to kill one person or five animals, which would you choose? If you were in a lifeboat, and there was room for a drowning person only if you threw your dog overboard, would you?
So seldom do these “lifeboat” scenarios play out in real time – such questions are partly curiosity, partly an attempt to undermine the idea of thinking about our responsibilities to animals at all, and partly an attempt to reinforce the moral priority we place on humans. But some traditional users of animals, especially biomedical researchers, appropriated and adapted these scenarios to fit their professional designs – asserting that they choose to use rats or dogs or monkeys for research if a cure for cancer or heart disease could be found — even though they could hardly guarantee such an outcome. Generally speaking, we’re still searching for those cures decades later, and with hundreds of millions of animals killed despite some gains made as a consequence.
In past situations where children have fallen into gorilla exhibits, these immensely powerful animals chose to be the rescuers of the children. In fact, like Harambe, their instinct seemed to be a protective one. If I had been in charge at Cincinnati, I hope I would have ordered the darting of the animal first, with a back-up shooter available if the crisis escalated. But I wasn’t there, and it’s hard to second-guess people dealing with a crisis like that in real time. Their hearts must be very heavy in Cincinnati today.
I do think it’s important to note that for the vast majority of human killings of animals, there’s no such moral dilemma. No gorilla v. boy. No cow v. girl. No elephant v. man.
Instead, there’s still the mass killing of animals for sport or entertainment or fur fashion or for palate preference.
When the Trump boys go to Africa to kill an elephant or a leopard, they go out of their way to do so (spending tens of thousands of dollars to travel 7,000 miles for their little killing sprees and taking the lives of rare animals minding their business in their native habitats with their families).
When people wear fur, they consign perhaps two dozen bobcats to die a miserable death, even though they could buy synthetic or natural fiber coats and do just fine without the real thing.
When a company chooses to test cosmetics on animals, it does so with the knowledge that hundreds of other companies market their products safely without resorting to intentional poisoning of animals or dripping an undiluted compound into their eyes.
So, yes, let’s grieve for Harambe. Let’s recognize though that zoo officials took this action with extreme regret, and in crisis mode. And let’s all examine, as individuals and as a society, whether it’s okay to kill animals for utterly gratuitous purposes and with the knowledge that there are functionally equivalent or superior options available to us. The scenarios we confront every day of our lives are not lifeboat or runaway train scenarios. They involve clear moral choices and common sense and common decency.
A broader reexamination of our relationship with animals may be the best remembrance we can offer poor Harambe.