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Was Harambe Agitated Or Protective? Here's What Gorilla And Animal Behavior Experts Say

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The shooting and death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla, at the Cincinnati Zoo after a four-year-old child got into his enclosure has sparked outrage. The zoo keepers maintain they made the right decision to shoot the 400-pound ape, rather than risk losing the boy. But a video of the incident is causing some to believe that the gentle giant was actually being protective of the child.

Animal experts and gorilla behaviorists weigh in on the discussion.

The Right Call

The director of Cincinnati Zoo, Thane Maynard, stands by the decision of his employees to immediately put down Harambe in order to rescue the boy. But many feel the decision was made more to protect the zoo from legal liabilities.

Maynard has explained that using a tranquilizer was not a safe option at that point because it would have taken up to 10 minutes to take effect on such a large adult, male gorilla. In addition, onlookers, as well as the child in the enclosure, were reportedly making the situation more tense by screaming.

According to reports, zoo staff were able to call two female gorillas away from the enclosure using a coded whistle. Harambe, however, did not respond to the call.

Some believe that the exit of his family from the enclosure might have added to his confusion even more.

A few other zoo directors agree that the difficult decision was the right one.

Greg Tarry, associate director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, said that based on the fact that it took zoo keepers about 10 minutes to try to coax Harambe into leaving the child to no avail, it was clear that he was not going to do so at all. In the absence of an alternative, they had to think fast and use the only solution available to them quickly.

“If you think about the role of a silverback gorilla, their role is to protect their females and to protect their territory. When this totally unknown drops right into the middle of their territory, I’m sure that he didn’t know what to do,” Tarry said.

Animal expert and TV host, Jeff Corwin, also agrees that a tranquilizer may not have acted quick enough to get the boy out of harm's way.

"Depending on what the medication is, it can take upward to 10 to 15 minutes. It may take multiple shots," he told CNN, echoing the sentiments of Maynard.

Sharon Redrobe, chief executive of the Twycross Zoo in England, also feels that the Cincinnati zoo staff had no other choice.

“The fact they left the situation for 10 minutes before firing the final shot shows they would have tried everything they could to get the male gorilla to enter the inside enclosure away from the boy,” she said in an interview with Mirror.

A Needless Tragedy

Still, other experts feel that the boy was in no real harm and cooler minds may have been able to save both lives.

Animal behavior expert Gisela Kaplan, of University of New England, said that a gorilla would be intelligent enough not to perceive a small child as a threat to his territory or family.

“If he was going to attack he would’ve warned him first. The first thing they do is charge and beat their chests and as far as I know that didn’t happen,” she said to news.com in Australia.

However, Kaplan adds that she was not on the scene and may not know of other factors that may have contributed to the decision to shoot to kill Harambe.

She does warn that the dominant male's death will have a devastating effect on his family and that they may not recover from it easily. In her opinion, if the zoo keepers had a better relationship with their animals, they would have had one keeper who would be close enough for the group to trust when they give a command and to calm the situation.

Likewise, the very vocal animal rights group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), also feels that excessive force was used. In a statement, it pointed out that other people have fallen into enclosures in the past and killing the animal has never happened before.

“Who can forget gorilla Binti Jua, who gently picked up an unconscious boy who had fallen into her enclosure and cradled him in her arms before carefully handing him over to Brookfield Zoo keepers?” the group said.

"An Old Man Can Cry"

Harambe's death is particularly tragic for Jerry Stones, the 74-year-old zoo keeper who was like Harambe's adoptive father.

"I raised him from a baby, he was a sweet cute little guy. He grew up to be a beautiful male. He was very intelligent. Very, very intelligent," said Stones.

Other mourners gathered at the zoo on Memorial Day to hold a vigil for the critically endangered silverback gorilla.

Even Maynard has expressed gratitude for those who have left flowers for Harambe and says that they will remember him as "handsome and smart" according to tweets from WCPO.

Cincinnati Zoo has reopened but the Gorilla World exhibit will remain closed indefinitely as officials pledge to investigate the decisions that were made and the barriers they had in place around Harambe and his family's enclosure. They explained this is the first time they have experienced a breach at Gorilla World in 38 years.

Meanwhile, the four-year-old has reportedly been released from the Cincinnati Hospital Medical Center on Saturday evening.

Harambe turned 17 years old on May 27 – the day before he was shot.

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