Harambe lives, online: killed zoo gorilla gets a second life as an internet meme

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 3:11pm

With online declarations such as “Harambe Lives!” the Ohio zoo gorilla shot and killed after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure has taken on life after death.

The late 17-year-old great ape has shown up in tongue-in-cheek petitions to rename the hometown Cincinnati Bengals, to add his face to Mount Rushmore or the Lincoln Memorial, and to put him on the dollar bill. He has grown the angel wings and halo of a deity in social media memorials.

He’s even been mock-nominated for president.

The Harambe meme is fed by a combination of genuine sadness over his death, continued controversy over the circumstances that led to it, and the penchant of many social media users for satire — which sometimes turns offensive.

“There is a word we like to use in our discipline, in pop culture studies, and that is ‘polysemic’: has many meanings,” said Jeremy Wallach, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “Harambe definitely is that, a sign that possesses many different interpretations.”

Mother says ‘accidents happen’, as zoo director defends killing gorilla to save her boy

Harambe remembrances began soberly, with a legitimate “Justice for Harambe” petition seeking to hold the boy’s mother responsible in his May 28 death. The county prosecutor ruled there was no cause for charges. The zoo reopened its gorilla exhibit with a higher, reinforced barrier and urged support for gorilla conservation efforts.

But the zoo’s hopes of moving on have been countered by all the continued reminders.

“We are not amused by the memes, petitions and signs about Harambe,” Thane Maynard, Cincinnati Zoo director, said by email. “Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us. We are honoring Harambe by redoubling our gorilla conservation efforts and encouraging others to join us .”

Esther Clinton, who also specialises in popular culture at Bowling Green, said the Kong-like proportions of the craze reflect lingering questions.

Blame the ugly tradition of zoos for Harambe the gorilla’s killing

“There are a lot of people who really do feel bad about what happened to him,” she said. “There’s a sense of here’s this poor guy, just in his cage imprisoned by humans, minding his own business; a kid climbs into his cage and he gets shot. It brings up all sorts of questions: about the zoo model, about the rights of non-human primates, about parenting.”

The Harambe phenomenon turned ugly in June, when images were posted on a Facebook page likening Adam Goodes, a star Australian football player of indigenous ancestry, to the ape. They were pulled down and the page apologised. Twitter got caught in a similar controversy after racial posts about “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones, who is black, included a Harambe comparison. The social media site recently announced two new settings aimed at curbing harassment.

Social media users like to satirise controversies. “Never Forget #Harambe,” read posts accompanying Harambe’s photo superimposed on sculptures, above cityscapes, among famous dead people such as Muhammad Ali or John F. Kennedy. Some Twitter users routinely add the hashtag #RIPHarambe even to posts that have nothing to do with him.

He has surfaced in rewritten song lyrics, comedians’ acts, at sports events and in rap songs.

On Change.org, a recent search turned up 253 references to Harambe. They include the early Justice for Harambe petition and the recent petition to rename the Cincinnati Bengals the Harambes, which has received more than 21,000 signatures. Other petitions want a Harambe emoji, a Harambe character in Pokemon Go, to clone Harambe, even to canonise him.

WCPO-TV web editor James Leggate recently declared that enough was enough, by starting an online petition to end the Harambe online petitions.

“At first, the petitioners had good intentions,” he wrote. “But then the goofuses of the Internet hopped on the Harambe train for their jollies, and it has gotten out of control.”

Animal rights activist Anthony Seta, who organised a Cincinnati vigil in tribute to Harambe soon after his death, thinks much of the attention in terms of memorials has been a positive.

“For the most part, I’m very happy with it. It shows people are remembering what a wonderful being he was,” he said. “The ones that are mocking and making light of the death of this being, I find incredibly offensive.”

Ashley Byrne, an associate director at PETA, said trolls poking fun at animal-rights activists seem to be in a “distinct minority” when it comes to Harambe.

“This tragic incident really did start a new conversation,” she said. “Most people who saw the video came away with a great degree of empathy for animals forced to live in captivity.”