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

Eleni Panagiotarakou says there is simply no justification for keeping wild animals captive, following the shooting at Cincinnati zoo that has stirred public outrage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 11:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 11:41am

The story of Harambe, the male western lowland gorilla who was killed at the Cincinnati zoo on May 28 after a three-year-old boy entered his enclosure, has taken the internet by storm.

Similar to the killing of Cecil the lion, the death of Harambe has generated a mixture of grief, anger and suspended indignation.

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Grief at the senseless death of a magnificent, endangered animal; anger towards the mother of the young boy, who is accused of being a negligent parent; and suspended indignation towards the zoo director who continued to justify his decision in the language of tragic, binary necessity – if Harambe was not killed, he would have killed the boy.

Faced with such a choice, only misanthropes would dare claim that the life of a non-human animal (even an endangered one) is more valuable than that of a human child.

However, it never had to come to that – not if the Cincinnati zoo did not exist.

As philosopher Lori Gruen insightfully put it: “The real question is not who to blame, but why anyone was in a situation in which they had to make a choice between the life of a human child and the life of an endangered teenage gorilla in the first place. Keeping wild animals in captivity is fraught with problems. This tragic choice arose only because we keep animals in zoos.”

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Of course, zoos justify their existence on the basis of two arguments: education and conservation. Both arguments are flawed.

On education: zoos do not educate children on “animal capabilities, societies or habitat needs”. What they teach them is to denigrate animals.

If we want to educate our children, we should be showing them wildlife documentaries

If we want to educate our children, we should be showing them wildlife documentaries in IMAX theatres.

Instead of observing neurotic or depressed animals in animal prisons, they will be observing free animals in their natural habitat.

On conservation: leaving aside the fact that zoo animals live shorter lives than their wild counterparts, unless wild animals are protected in their natural environments, captive breeding won’t make a difference.

Even if one were to accept the premise that zoos are altruistic institutions that care deeply for the welfare of animals and are not a multibillion-dollar business, the reality is that zoo animals never experience the full spectrum of existence.

No zoo could ever mimic the fury of a violent thunderstorm, the gentle murmur of a moonlit rainforest or the waves of the deep blue ocean.

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Part of the puzzle is that species conservation is not so much a scientific problem as it is a political one. The best way to protect endangered species is to ensure that they do not become endangered in the first place. This often entails questions of political power and sovereignty.

More than that, it entails a global political will to reserve exclusive geographical spaces for wild animals, which would in turn entail certain environmental demands – such as human population control and sustainable lifestyles.

Modern zoos are nothing more than a form of ‘conspicuous leisure’ for the poor

If zoos serve an ambiguous role in the realm of education and conservation, where does their popularity lie?

The answer to this question lies in the history of zoos, which stretches back in time to Egypt more than 5,000 years ago.

It might not be common knowledge but zoos trace their origins to imperialism. Conquerors would capture exotic animals and used them to intimidate enemies, amuse themselves or to display their wealth and power to others.

In other words, zoos appear to be one of the earliest examples of what Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen termed “conspicuous consumption”. Namely, obtaining something not out of need but in order to display a higher social status. Under this hypothesis, I would say that modern zoos are nothing more than a form of “conspicuous leisure” for the poor.

And, in the case of Harambe, a form of cruel leisure.

Eleni Panagiotarakou is a professor at Champlain College Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada, and a part-time lecturer at the departments of political science and philosophy at Concordia University. Twitter: @Eleni_Sparta