How to Remember Harambe


As with so many issues in our public sphere these days, there’s no lack of outrage over the death of Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla shot to death after a four-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Well, good. There should be outrage.

But, as with so many issues that inspire outrage these days, the rage may amount to nothing more than a spasm of public fit-throwing and agenda-pushing, unless we carefully channel this anger into something useful.

This tragedy reminds me of a wrongful killing that happened years ago when I was board president of a large animal shelter. A German Shepherd-type dog was admitted to the shelter. His people were located and they were coming to get him. In a nearby kennel there was a very similar shepherd-type dog, but his people weren’t coming to get him. He was slated for euthanasia. But, on the morning of the euthanasia, a confused staff person grabbed the wrong dog. They killed the dog whose family was enroute to get him.

There was a terrible uproar and it was an excruciating time for everyone involved. The family contacted the media and the shelter spent a couple of weeks under an angry spotlight. None of us slept much, and when I was lying awake I was, of course, grieving for the dogs involved, for the people who lost their dog, for the poor staff person who had made that mistake. And I also wondered what a brilliant public relations mind could do to help shape this narrative.

The question was this: how can we use this anger? You would think I’d want the public to stop being angry, since their anger was directed at the shelter. But who would want to  live in a community where people didn’t get angry about a thing like this? I wanted them to be angry, damned mad, in fact.  And I wanted their angry gaze to last long enough for them to connect the pieces.

At the time (though thankfully these days are long gone) the shelter euthanized several thousand dogs and cats a year, and nobody seemed to mind much. The public continued to bring their animals to the shelter’s front door, about 12,000 times a year, 1,000 times a month, 230 times a week, and leave their dogs and cats to this potential fate. The public seemed okay with this reality as long as it happened in a building on the edge of town where underpaid nonprofit employees accepted the community’s burden and kept quiet about it. Statistics showed the community as a whole had some of the nation’s lowest rates of charitable giving. People were contributing 12,000 animals a year to the problem, and alarmingly little to the solution.

The outrage over the one dead dog is like the public outpouring of concern for the occasional cow who escapes a truck on the way to slaughter, or like the current communal roar of grief over Harambe. Our challenge as advocates is to capture that anger, maybe to fan its flames just enough, and then to show the angry mobs what’s behind curtain #2.

Let the martyred animal become an ambassador. Let his memory speak for the untold others who have no voice.

Leaders are trying to do this in the wake of Harambe’s death. Captain Paul Watson from Greenpeace issued a commentary condemning the humans who contributed to every level of the tragedy: the careless mother, the “gawkers” at the zoo who kept screaming and elevating the hysteria, the zookeepers who should have seen Harambe’s gentleness and concern but rewarded it with a bullet. Ultimately, Watson writes, Harambe belonged in the lowland jungles of Africa, not in a zoo. And now a child will have to live with having witnessed the tragic death of the gentle giant who held his hand.

In contrast, my friend Wayne Pacelle of The Humane Society of the United States wrote a blog post with less emotion and a stiff shot of his characteristic philosophical eloquence. Rather than debate the rare crisis scenario that makes for good conversation (Would you redirect a train to kill three animals but save one human? Would you kill a gorilla to save a child?) let’s focus instead on the daily decision we all make that have even more impact. Perhaps they make for less interesting conversation, but that’s because these are mundane, easy choices.

Would you kill an animal for a meal if there was another perfectly good animal-free meal available to you? Would you kill an animal for a pair of shoes or a purse if there were equally good non-animal ones available? Would you buy products that are tested on animals if the products on the next shelf over are cruelty-free?

The Cincinnati Zoo will remain under the angry hot spotlight for a few days, and then the attention likely will drift to the next distraction or cause for outrage. But what if we were able to do it differently this time? What if we turned the hot spotlight into a broad floodlight and used it to take a good long look at our entire relationship to animals?

There are other gentle giants to save, if only we will look long enough to see them.