A gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo.
A gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo.
Indefinitely Wild

What Cecil the Lion Can Teach Us About Harambe the Gorilla

You can’t bring Harambe back, but you can help keep wild gorillas alive—if you chose to do something positive with your outrage


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This weekend, a gorilla was shot at a zoo after a little boy fell into its enclosure. Everyone got really angry. Angry at the parents, angry at the zoo, angry at the regulations, and angry about the system that puts wild animals in captivity for our amusement and education. The level of outrage is similar to that created around the killing of Cecil the lion last year. As is the abject pointlessness of it. When it comes to the deaths of famous animals, we’re all getting angry about the wrong thing. 

How the Outrage Sausage Is Made

First with #CecilTheLion, and now #Harambe, I’ve contributed to the Internet outrage machine. Last September, I went on HLN’s popular show Dr. Drew to talk about lion hunting, and yesterday, I did the same to discuss the gorilla. 

Well, “discuss” is probably the wrong word. It was more like shouting, arguing, and generally making a lot of noise on camera, in front of millions of viewers. You see, talk shows are a lot like Internet comments sections. They can be full of quality information, and insightful discussions that help people understand the points of view of others, but more often they’re just an echo chamber in which people compete to be the loudest voice for their own, typically ill-informed opinions. 

Who am I to be shouting at other people on television about lions and gorillas? Well, no one really. I’m not a scientist, I’m not particularly an expert in any way except that I sometimes write about animals, and know how to do some research, and I’m not really a public figure of any kind. I get the call to go on these shows a) because I live in Los Angeles, where they’re filmed b) because I have a lot of friends in the media business, and we all help each other out with opportunities, c) because I’ve had enough practice to not totally make a fool of myself on camera, and d) because some people are under the impression that I’m not totally hideous to look at. My own opinions on a given topic are far less important than my ability and willingness to make a particular argument, as assigned by the show’s producers. I guess if I’m endowed with any real resume-worthy skill to make these appearances, it’s the ability to argue with other people. 

So yesterday morning I got a text from the show’s bookers asking if I could speak intelligently from the viewpoint that Harambe should have been shot. I was only vaguely aware of the story, having just returned from a three-day camping trip the night before. I responded in the affirmative, but noted that it wasn’t my personal take on the whole thing. They said they’d get back to me, and I set about reading up on the tragedy. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing this stuff, it’s that I can make myself look smarter by soliciting the input of people who are smarter than me. So I emailed animal behavior scientist Marc Bekoff for some input. You can read his complete thoughts here, but the gist is:

Moving forward, caretakers, who are responsible for the day-to-day well-being of the zoo's residents and who form personal relationships with them, must be involved in preparing for emergency situations such as this. It's these people “on the ground” who know the animals the best and who regularly communicate with them. They also could well be the people who could communicate the animal out of danger so it could be a win-win for all involved. Harambe, like all other gorillas and numerous other zoo-ed animals, are highly intelligent and emotional beings who depend on us to respect and value their cognitive capacities that could well be put to use in potentially dangerous situations. Clearly, knowing about the behavior of each animal, as an individual with a unique personality, is essential for the well-being of every captive being.

That sounds like a much better policy than just shooting a valuable, sensitive animal who has done nothing wrong, so I was relieved when the show’s booker texted back to ask me to argue against the shooting. And that’s the point you can watch me try to make here. There was another segment of me participating in the shouting that’s not currently available online, but you get the idea. 

What Your Anger Is Worth

A famous lion was killed by a hunter. A famous gorilla was shot by a zoo. Both situations suck, and you’re right to be angry about it. After all, who doesn’t like animals?

In the case of Harambe, you’re angry that the boy’s parents didn’t provide adequate supervision, you’re angry that the barriers didn’t stop the kid from falling in, you’re angry that the zoo chose to shoot rather than tranquilize the gorilla, and you’re angry that zoos exist at all. Let’s look at each of the things you’re angry about, and briefly discuss the merit of that anger. 

You’re angry at the parents: How dare they lose sight of their kid for a few seconds! Well, he’s a kid, and as anyone who’s ever spent time with one can tell you, human children are little rascals. Like the circus, or an amusement park, a zoo is a place parents take children so they can have fun, eat some cotton candy, throw a temper tantrum, and buy some stuffed animals. Yes, parents have a burden of responsibility, no, it’s not reasonable to argue that the parents should be subject to legal prosecution for a four year old acting like a four year old in an environment that encourages that. What would a prosecution achieve, anyway? 

You’re angry at the zoo for shooting the animal: I get that. But they had to act to protect the child, and they had to make a split-second decision between two bad options. Ultimately, they did succeed in rescuing the child unharmed, so that decision must have been the right one. Hopefully this incident does enable us to have a discussion about pursuing better, non-lethal emergency response options at zoos, but the fact is none were available in Cincinnati this weekend. 

You're angry about inadequate barriers: The zoo argues that they passed federal regulations and inspection, and in their 38 year's of keeping people away from the gorillas, this was the first time they failed. That seems pretty reasonable, especially considering the need to balance visibility—you are there to see the animals after all—with protection. 

You’re angry at the zoo for existing: As the Zoo’s CEO stated on Dr. Drew, while I was shouting at him, zoos are responsible for igniting a passion for animal conservation in the young, and contribute a massive amount of money to conservation efforts in the wild. Nature reserves? Zoos help pay for those. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums claims that, worldwide, 700 million people visit them each year, the proceeds from which raise $350 million annually for wildlife conservation. Maybe it is time to have a discussion about the benefits of zoos relative to nature media, but it’s probably not time to totally swap one for the other until we can match that financial contribution. Wild animals like gorillas are dependent on zoo money for their survival. 

The trouble is, all this anger adds up, and can negatively effect things related to animal conservation. Will anger at zoos reduce attendance this summer? Will this reduced attendance lower the amount of money raised for conservation? Past experience suggests that misdirected anger will actually harm conservation efforts.


Lion Conservation Post Hashtag

Last year, everyone got really angry about that dentist killing that lion. He got death threats, people vandalized his home and office, airlines announced that the marketing value of banning trophies as air freight outweighed the lost luggage fees, and the EU considered banning big game trophies, full stop. 

So lions are safer now, right? In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. 

Wildlife populations in Zimbabwe have been in steep decline since 2000, when Robert Mugabe began seizing private land in the country, much of which had been private hunting reserves. Some estimate that the move has halved the country’s wild animal population. One place where lion hunting remains accessible to foreigners is on the Bubye Valley Conservancy, which is home to about 500 of the big cats—the country’s largest concentration of the vulnerable species. Management of the wildlife in that conservancy is largely funded by visiting hunters, but this year, hunters have been staying away, wary of the hashtag stigma. And now up to 200 of those lions may need to be culled as a result. 

The European Union recently voted against an outright ban on importing hunting trophies from Africa that had been garnering popular support, post-Cecil. 80 percent of the EU parliament found that the benefits of trophy hunting outweighed its negative image. But that hasn’t stopped member countries from effecting their own bans. The Netherlands just banned the import of trophies taken from most African species, effectively stopping its citizens from hunting in Africa. 

Why is that bad? As Namibia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism states, “In accordance with our legislation and policies, the proceeds generated by means of trophy hunting should be reinvested into the conservation of that species. This fund pays for black rhino conservation projects approved by the fund's board, such as law enforcement and anti poaching units, community benefits and surveys.”

Big game hunting puts about $200 million annually into the economies of 23 sub-saharan African countries, providing an economic incentive for the conservation of game species across countries that are often corrupt, war torn, politically instable, or all three. That money incentivizes private land owners to use their land as wildlife habitat instead of farming, and turns wildlife into a profitable commodity, leading to both its protection, and recovery. All your #CecilTheLion outrage put that proven, successful system in jeopardy, without providing an alternative. Will the same happen to zoos after #Harambe?

You can read more about the conservation realities of African trophy hunting here. I ask that you please do take the time to read it before you fly down to the comments section to tell me what a terrible human being I am. 

Have people been motivated by the tragic loss of Cecil to replace proceeds from trophy hunting with charitable giving? There was a spike in giving around the controversy, with one small United Kingdom-based research group (which was studying Cecil), WildCRU, receiving a windfall of around $1 million, four times its annual operating budget. But while that money will be put to good use, it doesn't address poaching, or habitat loss (the two biggest challenges lion populations face). And a one-time spike in giving, spent on research in a National Park, doesn't replace lost revenue elsewhere. 

“There’s the unanswered question this kind of viral giving presents regarding whether it can be turned into sustained support, or translated into growth for conservation in general,” explains Inside Philanthropy. “The problems surrounding loss of biodiversity are so much broader than can be addressed by limited work with lions in a single country.”

Overall, charitable giving to conservation efforts has continued to grow at its usual pace, with no marked influence created by the Cecil tragedy. The World Wildlife Fund's annual revenue increased by a smaller amount in 2015, than it did in 2009, during the midst of the recession. Established supporters of conservation efforts—in Cecil's case private game reserves, in Harambe's zoo funding of protected wildlife areas—still represent an important economic lifeline to these species. 

How to Turn Your Anger Into Something Useful

What will all your anger at the parents, the zoo, and the system achieve? Nothing. And, as with Cecil, it may even hurt gorilla conservation efforts. Rather than focusing on blame, why don’t we take your newfound interest in gorillas not being shot, and turn it into something positive? 

There are less than 200,000 gorillas left in the wild. The species is under massive pressure from habitat loss, disease, and poaching. The WWF and other charities are tackling all three issues, while also developing eco-tourism opportunities that can not only further raise funds for gorilla conservation, but also educate and impassion visitors about the species. They deserve our support, and hopefully that support can be more than a one-time spike. 

Rather than sign a ridiculous Change.org petition, share your outrage over social media, or attack the parents or zoo, why not simply donate a few bucks to the conservation charity of your choice? At the time of writing, this wrong-headed petition has garnered over 458,000 signatures. If each of those signees had actually decided to do something positive (say, donate $5), then they could have meaningfully created actual change. $2.3 million in conservation funding will do more for gorillas than persecuting the child’s parents could ever hope to achieve. You can’t bring Harambe back, but you can help keep the wild gorilla alive, if you chose to do something positive

I just did. 

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