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Harambe the gorilla: the zoo killing that’s set the internet on fire, explained

Harambe the gorilla.
Harambe the gorilla.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, turned 17 at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on Friday. The zoo celebrated his birthday. The next day, zoo officials shot and killed the critically endangered ape.

The reason? Harambe acted like a gorilla.

On the day Harambe died, a 4-year-old boy managed to get into his enclosure. Video of the incident shows that Harambe grabbed the child, stood over him at times, and dragged him. The severity of Harambe's actions and the perceived reasoning behind them depend on whom you ask. And after evaluating the situation, zoo officials decided to kill Harambe instead of tranquilizing him.

It took around 10 minutes from the moment the boy fell into Harambe's enclosure to the decision to kill Harambe. But the controversy surrounding Harambe's death has just begun.

What happened to Harambe

The controversy surrounding Harambe's death is much more complicated than the actions that led to his death. A boy found his way into Cincinnati's "Gorilla World" enclosure, and when he fell in (a 10- to 12-foot drop), Harambe grabbed him, stood over him, and dragged him. The full video of the incident is up at WLWT, an NBC affiliate in Cincinnati. This video, a condensed version of the encounter, has been making the rounds:

Witnesses at the scene as well as people watching the video have been split on the severity of the situation. Some people believe Harambe was protecting the child in the same way a gorilla would protect its own offspring. However, according to the incident report cited by the New York Times, Harambe was described as "violently dragging and throwing the child."

Once zoo officials were notified of the incident — about 10 minutes after the boy fell in — they decided the child was in danger. They later explained it was clear a tranquilizer was not an option because of the risk that tranquilizing Harambe would make him react dangerously.

"It is important to note that with the child still in the exhibit, tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option," the Cincinnati Zoo said in a statement. "Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger. On top of that, the impact from the dart could agitate the animal and cause the situation to get much worse."

The zoo's decision to kill Harambe, according to experts, was the right call under the conditions. Jack Hanna, the respected and renowned American zookeeper, told WNBS-10TV that he would have made the same decision.

"It takes 5 to 10 minutes for a gorilla to lay down and go to sleep, so what's that male going to do if all the sudden, 'pow' he feels this thing hit him?" he said. "He's going to go back there, 'what is this thing?' pull it out, and he's got a child in his hand … We're going to have a disaster. Within one split second. You wouldn't even want to witness it."

On Monday, zoo officials defended their decision during a press conference.

"Looking back, we would make the same decision," Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, said. "The gorilla was clearly agitated. The gorilla was clearly disoriented."

It's hard to argue with the zoo's decision. The zoologists and response team there know the animals and have years of experience compared to a common observer. And some people, specifically animal rights activists, understand that the call had to be made if they wanted to secure the life of the child. But that doesn't mean Harambe's death is something that people will just accept.

Harambe's death is really about human responsibility

The real issue of Harambe's death is about the idea of responsibility and accountability, or rather the lack of both when it comes to Michelle Gregg, the mother of the child who slipped into Harambe's enclosure. The basic question: How could any mother let her 4-year-old child fall into an enclosure?

According to the Cincinnati Zoo's annual report, 1.5 million visitors visited the park in 2014 to 2015, and the park has accommodated around or more than 1 million visitors over the past six years. Included in those numbers are millions of parents who managed to keep an eye on their children and not let them fall into a gorilla pit.

According to WLWT-TV, this was the first breach at the zoo since its opening in 1978.

There's also the question of exactly how long Gregg's child was unsupervised. When zoos make exhibits, they employ experts and architects who create barriers to make sure it's difficult for people to get in and for the animals to get out. The Cincinnati Zoo had a barrier, bushes, a 10 to 12-foot drop (there's a wall so the gorillas can't climb out), and a shallow moat enclosing the gorilla exhibit.

Unless Gregg's child was gifted and coordinated, these barriers would make it very difficult, if not delay a child immensely, to get into the enclosure.

It just seems a little puzzling to not be able to keep an eye on your child especially in a place where killing beasts — gorillas, lions, wild African dogs, and wolves — roam. And the missing child must have been missing for some time to get through the barriers on his own.

There's also the matter of Gregg's perceived lack of accountability.

In a now-deleted Facebook post, Gregg said she was a good parent and that this was an accident and cited God as the reason her child wasn't harmed:


It's not like Gregg lost track of her son and he bumped his head on a kitchen table or burned himself on a hot pan. Because of Gregg's lack of supervision, an endangered animal was killed and her son's life was put in danger.

Gregg's perceived lack of remorse (she didn't mention Harambe's death) in this Facebook post has garnered an outpouring of online hate. There are now online petitions (this one has 47,000-plus signatures; another has 317,000-plus signatures) asking for Child Protective Services to investigate Gregg for neglect. There's so much vitriol out there against Gregg that another Michelle Gregg has been harassed by people online. There are also unfounded rumors that Gregg is planning to sue to zoo, which would only build the hate against her.

Gregg says herself that she didn't watch her toddler. But it's how she put it — that she didn't seem to be concerned with Harambe's death and how it played out on the big stages of the internet and news reports — that has turned this into a viral, inescapable story.

Harambe and the internet outrage machine

Harambe's death isn't unlike that of Cecil the lion, a beloved big cat that was killed by an American dentist last year, or Marius, a giraffe at a Copenhagen zoo that zoo officials killed to feed lions in 2014. Harambe, Cecil, and Marius were all majestic animals that died because of human intervention. And the internet and social media, I fully believe, have raised our empathy and awareness of animals by exposing us to more animals in general (see: the idea of Cute Overload and the popularity of forums like Reddit's aww subreddit, and sites like the Dodo) and making us aware of atrocities against them (see: Blackfish).

In the wake of Harambe's death, there's been a huge swell of social media backlash against Gregg and against the zoo — not unlike the backlash against the dentist who killed Cecil and the Copenhagen Zoo, which euthanized Marius. Disputes over human responsibility are being raised, as are debates about gorillas living in captivity and questions about the ethics of having zoos in the first place.

But there's something deeper and larger here, too, and it speaks to the way the internet works now: Harambe's death has triggered the internet outrage machine and mob justice mechanism.

Gregg made a huge mistake — she might be the only member in the "parent who let their child play with a gorilla club" — by not watching her son closely enough. She's admitted as much. But the internet and social media have a way of crystallizing this story and turning Gregg into a lightning rod for hate.

Overnight, she's become a universal figure for bad parenting and irresponsibility.

And the internet and social media have made it so very simple to punish her — whether through signing petitions, or dedicating Facebook posts to pointing out how wrong Gregg is, or crafting tweetstorms about how she got a gorilla killed.

When people talk about the popularity of social media sharing, they say people share stories because it tells their friends and acquaintances something about them. Sharing stories — whether they're about racism, Donald Trump, or the Golden State Warriors — allows people to voice their political beliefs or cultural tastes. Sharing Gregg's story is a way to confirm that we're better people than Gregg (or know how to be better parents than Gregg) and would never make that mistake.

There's satisfaction in that.

Any human being can tell you that Gregg was wrong and she made a mistake, and most humans would agree that the child should have been saved even if Gregg did make an egregious mistake.

But there's a thirst for "justice" here that is unquenchable. And that should worry people, even if they believe Gregg is pretty much the worst mother on the planet right now.

Internet mob justice, as my colleague Max Fisher pointed out last year, is easy to partake in and especially satisfying when everyone feels they're on the right side of it. But there's no mechanism for when it fails, or when it's arbitrary, or when it takes the form of Gamergate or toxic, organized misogyny on the internet.

"The internet mob determines the severity of a crime based on subjective factors, such as how unlikable they find the alleged criminal to be, how likable they find the victim, and the degree to which the alleged crime fits into their preconceived beliefs," Fisher wrote. "You'll notice that most of these trace back not to the crime's impact on society, but rather the degree to which punishing the crime will feel good for the punishers."

We're not that far removed from Gregg receiving death threats and her address being published, which happened to the dentist who killed Cecil (it's possible it's already happened in some pockets of the internet). There's also a disturbing possibility that Gregg's race will be brought into this and a racist narrative will emerge.

And for what?

When it comes to Gregg, there's no other lesson here than to watch your child and make sure he or she does not fall into the lair of a beast capable of killing it. There's also the the idea of human failure when it comes to protecting wild animals.

But the rest of it — the overwhelming desire to punish Gregg, the need for "justice," the threats and harassment that Gregg (and other people who share her name) is receiving, the necessity to point out irresponsibility — is much more reflective of our own behavior and shortcomings than Gregg's.

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