A media hullaballoo was stirred this week when, at the Cincinnati Zoo, a longtime veteran gorilla resident named Harambe [which ironically means "all pull together" in Swahili, as in communal action for social benefit] was shot and killed when a 4-year-old boy crawled along a railing and fell into the gorilla's enclosure, into a watery moat. Gorillas, of which there are Eastern and Western gorillas, and further subdivision of 4 or 5 subspecies, are the largest living primates, with DNA very similar to our own.

In terrestrial zoology, gorillas are ground-dwelling, mostly herbivorous apes that inhabit the forests of central Africa. They have been unjustly slandered as being brutish, as when people call a shambling, loutish big male an "ape." In the wild, gorillas are said to live 35 to 40 years. But in captivity, despite what appears to be ferocious resentment and acting-out episodes, they have been seen to live 50 to 60 years. So Harambe could have lived maybe another 40 years, had the zoo officials not rushed to fell him.

New video footage of Harambe, the 17-year-old silverback, suggests he was trying to protect the four-year-old who fell into the zoo enclosure just minutes before the 400-pound animal was fatally shot.

For a few moments, Harambe and the boy had held hands, and footage shows Harambe was indeed being protective of the boy, not aggressive. There is now significant question as to whether the gorilla needed to be shot. Zoo officials said that a tranquilizer may have taken too long to take effect, had there been imminent danger to the child. Protests are already up and running against the shooting.

So our treatment of animals is in the public eye. Again.

I somewhat share the sadness and grief of our poor treatment of our close cousins, the primates, as well as the intelligent elephants, dolphins, whales and; I would include, another favorite, giraffes, all of whom require huge acreage to feel at home, feed, forage and thrive. I also believe, as does the writer of this piece that in the future, we will regard the current-day treatment of these sentient beings with huge discomfort and embarrassment.

Who doesn't love seeing animals in the wild? I have been 8 times to Africa, but a zoo, for all its convenience, is a prison of hopelessness in many cases–it is rare to find a zoo (one exception is the wonderful San Diego zoo, with large roaming spaces, though in fact never enough space, for the habitat needs of these mega-fauna) that does not enrage and defeat the spirits of these noble creatures. In China I saw domestic dogs caged in zoos, and the Westerner's heart broke for the evident senselessness and cruelty. These loving companion animals do not warrant a cage.

The killing of the mature gorilla this weekend may have been necessary (I was not there and cannot tell) to save the life of the child who invaded the cage-space, but I think they could have tranquillized the animal rather than killing it. A full-grown gorilla is in a sense sacred. There is not a huge oversupply of these magnificent near-humans. They are being hunted and shot and 'accidented' out of existence, their numbers steadily dwindling. It is estimated that there are some 150,000 to 200,000 left in the wild, numbers notably reduced from a century ago, when habitat was less invaded, less violated by hunters, and assuredly less touristified.

In years to come, when more research is done, we will know much more of the intelligence of these creatures given us by a beneficent Deity. Our magnanimity to them will enlarge. Perhaps the zoos will be emptier, but larger. And the inhabitants of these zoos will be less afflicted and diseased, wracked with sores and grieving expressions.

Satisfying, to me, is the flamboyantly fabulous aquarium in Dubai's largest mall and hotel complex. There is an enormous depth of voluminous water, and thousands of genera of fish and mammalia, all fed steadily to avoid cannibalism of some of the species who would eat each other if not provided food. I loved the vastness of the swim-space, hundreds of feet deep, which afforded the species room to circle and dive and explore and propagate. I know fish have split-second memories, but the kindness of the aquarium's capacity cheered the children and adult viewers, instinctually.

Zoos need to be like that, too–expansive enough to let the animal's nature not be constricted and bruised for all his barred and minimized life.

This is not to say we should all be in court clamoring for Raymour & Flanigan bedroom suites for chimps, or the latest tablets for orangutans. But a measure of empathy and kindness would not be out of place for humans as they regard those less free than we.


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