The Life of a Gorilla

By all accounts Harambe was a likeable fellow getting ready to start an exciting phase of his life in a new home.

Harambe. (Photo Credit: <a href="">Cincinnati Zoo</a>)
Harambe (b. May 27, 1999 – d. May 28, 2016). (Photo Credit: Cincinnati Zoo)

Born on May 27, 1999 in Brownsville, Texas, he had just celebrated his 17th birthday with his companions Chewie and Mara, who he had met shortly after arriving in Ohio. If only his parents Kayla and Moja could have seen him on that sunny afternoon in May. He had grown into a handsome young gorilla with a fine silver coat and chestnut highlights across his brow. His father Moja would have been proud. If Harambe was lucky, one day soon he might be a father himself, or so many hoped.

Yet less than a day later a single shot rang out. Moments later Harambe lay prone and lifeless, “neutralized” for the sake of ensuring a careless, hairless ape child would not face a risk of harm. The whole affair was saddening, but as zoo officials reminded us, Harambe was a dangerous wild animal after all.

If those reassuring remarks weren’t enough to seal Harambe’s fate as a dangerous animal bent on harm to the little human, self-proclaimed animal advocate Dahleen Glanton swooped in to reaffirm the guilty as charged verdict on behalf of animal lovers everywhere. She watched the video multiple times and every time she had reached the same conclusion:

“The ape had to die.”

Luckily a few more sober voices raised objections to the whole affair. One such critic was religious studies scholar Bron Taylor, who hoped the incident would “help those who are skeptical of the religious ideas that undergird human supremacy to leave them behind, once and for all.” After all, it was God who had protected the child and punished the ape, at least according to the child’s mother. Others suggested that a “revolution” in human-ape values was finally gaining wider public support, as evidenced by the strong public backlash and moral outrage over the seemingly senseless killing of Harambe.

But amidst all the debates about what zoo official should or shouldn’t have done when Harambe encountered three-year old Isaiah Gregg on that fateful day in May, I think it may be more useful to step back from the what ifs and holier-than-thou finger pointing and think about Harambe himself.

Who was he? Where did he come from?

In other words, I want us to dwell on what I am calling the “Harambe backstory.”

The Harambe Backstory

Like all good backstories, we need a bit of family genealogy to help set the stage. You can see Harambe enter the picture in the lower left corner of the family tree, next to his mother Kayla.

Harambe's Family Tree. (Photo Credit: Willard)
Harambe’s Family Tree. (Photo Credit: Willard)

Harambe was a second-generation immigrant from the African continent. His paternal grandparents Jimmie Gee and Josephine were both born free during the turbulent 1960s in the lowland jungles that span central Africa, prior to their arrival in Florida. Similarly, his maternal grandparents Katanga and Lamydoc were born in the jungles of Cameroon before their departure and relocation in the States. They were the first western lowland gorillas to arrive at the Gladys Porter Zoo, and prior to 1970 they had been living in Omaha at the Henry Doorly Zoo. In the fall of 1972 Katanga gave birth to Bruno, the first baby gorilla to be born at the Gladys Porter Zoo.

Baby Harambe (aka "Skeeter") shortly after birth. (Photo Credit: <a href="">Jim and Sue Smith</a>)
Baby Harambe (aka “Skeeter”) shortly after birth. (Photo Credit: Jim and Sue Smith)

Much to my surprise I discovered that Josephine is alive and well in Miami, having outlived most of her children and grandchildren. Lamydoc is also alive and well, having outlived many of his children and grandchildren, and he still lives at Gladys Porter Zoo where Haramabe was born. Jimmie Gee died a few years before the birth of Harambe, and Katanga passed away in 2015 at the ripe old age of 52.

Unlike their parents who were born wild, Harambe’s parents Kayla and Moja were both born in captivity in southern Florida as part of a primate breeding and research program. Similar to Harambe, they only knew the forests and swamps of central Africa through the stories that Jimmie Gee, Josephine, Katang and Lamydoc had told them growing up. They were likely great stories, but also sad. After all, peace was a hard thing to come by anywhere in Africa in the 1960s, especially for a gorilla.

Trials and Tribulations of Youth

But none of this mattered to Harambe, who had more pressing matters to worry about at the time than hearing old African liberation struggle war stories from his grandparents. Like the figure of Tarzan, star of a major Disney movie which hit the theaters the same year as his birth, Harambe was trying to figure out who he was in the mixed up world of humans and apes.

A young Nzinga, Harambe and Caesar wrestling in the yard. (Photo Credit: <a href="">Jim and Sue Smith</a>)
A young Nzinga, Harambe and Caesar wrestling in the yard. (Photo Credit: Jim and Sue Smith)

By all accounts he was a precocious youth, although not as wild as some of his friends. Before everyone knew him as Harambe, he had a nickname of “Skeeter”. Together with “Rowdy,” better known as Nzinga, and another boy named Caesar, the three ruled the Gladys Porter Zoo playground as members of a lively troop of Western lowland gorillas trying to make the best of a life defined by permanent captivity and the whims of human breeders and species conservation programs.

In 2002 Harambe experienced his first major tribulation with the death of several family members. Harambe’s mother Kayla, along with his brother Makoko and step-brother Caesar, tragically died after an accidental chlorine gas leak occurred in their enclosure.

Following this incident Harambe was left alone with his father for almost a decade. The troop of gorillas slowly grew in size, with some members dying while others were born. A series of especially chilly Texas nights in the spring of 2013 finally got the better of Moja, and in mid April his heart suddenly gave out, leaving Harambe as the last of his immediate family besides his maternal grandfather Lamydoc.

Beginning of the End

But by then Harambe was no longer a child.

He was nearing his sexual prime, and the humans who oversaw the primate breeding program at the Gladys Porter Zoo began to look for suitable mates beyond the walls of the enclosure. Although we don’t tend to think of it in quite these terms, primate conservation breeding programs are a lot like arranged marriages: some figure in a position of authority–parents or scientific advisors in this case–put together a list of possible matches from a pool of eligible candidates. And as is often the case with arranged marriages, Harambe had no say in the direction of his future.

A little over a year later Harambe would leave Brownsville for his new home in a town called Cincinnati along the Ohio River. Although he didn’t know it yet, this move was the beginning of the end. By all accounts the beginning seemed remarkably optimistic, as can be seen in this video posted by the Cincinnati Zoo announcing the arrival of Harambe.

There is no need to rehash the account of what happened to Harambe next, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we saw the more than human world, and not just the world of primates like Harambe, through an interspecies lens based on respect and relationality. As I have tried to show here, albeit rather crudely, we can imagine a life just as rich and complicated as our own for other species. Sure, it may be easier to imagine our kinship with great apes, but the truth is, we are much closer to all living beings than we might care to admit.

Like Dahleen Glanton, I watched and re-watched the video of Harambe’s encounter with the little boy. But unlike Glanton, nothing led me to conclude that Harambe had to die. Perhaps this is because I don’t accept the presupposition that one human life is more precious than one gorilla life, as Glanton clearly does. This is the sickness of anthropocentrism that Bron Taylor urged us to reject in his post. And I saw no ill intent in the actions of Harambe. A bit of rough dragging by human standard perhaps, but if that was enough to justify deadly force there should be millions of dead parents in the streets who have committed far worse acts of child endangerment.

What matters is that Harmabe died because of who he was, a gorilla, not because of what he did. The child at risk is merely an expedient excuse to justify a questionable moral position of human supremacy over all other species. We should at least have the courage to call it what it really is.

Harambe’s passing surely left a mark on Mara and Chewie, his two companions who were left wondering about his sudden disappearance from the Cincinnati Zoo. Some primate specialists have even suggested that emotional support will be needed to help them deal with the shock and possible depression caused by the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Harambe.

Sadly nothing anyone can do will bring Harambe back. He has now joined the growing list of other-than-human-beings that have vanished in the face of the Sixth Great Extinction. While the lowland mountain gorilla is not extinct yet, their numbers continue to shrink in the face of poaching, war and habitat destruction by humans. While the species conservation efforts by sites like the Gladys Porter Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo should be applauded, the only way that Harambe and his kin will ever truly be safe, and perhaps one day see true freedom again, is if we change our relationship to other than human species and the planet.

To me, that is the story Harambe would want to have told in his honor–a dream of gorilla freedom.

For those seeking traditional ways to help, consider a donation to the Harambe Fund, which supports wild primate conservation efforts.

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6 thoughts on “The Life of a Gorilla

    1. Yeah he didnt deserve it the kid and mother are the ones to blame for not being careful!

      1. While I understand the tendency to blame the mother or child for what happened, we can just as easily blame the culture of fear surrounding primates, the lack of proper infrastructure security at the zoo, labor markets which force families apart and leave single parents to cope with work and childcare at the same time, or the innate curiousity of children to explore their surroundings. If we blamed every child or parent who was not “careful” in their lives, the world would be a very banal place. The problem here was the not being careful had additional complicating dynamics, at least for Harambe.

        1. That’s true. We shouldn’t blame the mother, child, or Harambe for the incident. It just happened. But poor Harambe suffered the most from the incident.

        2. I have to also agree with this. It was not Harambe’s, the child, or the mother’s fault that this happened.

  1. I feel so bad about Harambe and how many other animals of all species are dying because of us. He did not deserve to die. I feel worse because harambe was the born the same day, year, qnd month i was born. Rest in peace Harambe. We all miss you.

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