On May 28, 2016, Harambe died. Many mourned his death, but I was particularly distraught. You see, I might have known Harambe’s father... or his sister... or perhaps his cousin?
Harambe, you may recall, was a 17-year-old Western Lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. When a three-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, Harambe climbed into the moat to investigate the child splashing in the water.
Harambe became agitated by the screams of the onlookers, and he dragged the child through the water, occasionally propping him up or pushing him down. He also began to exhibit “strutting” behavior, a common gorilla intimidation tactic. He then carried the boy out of the moat onto dry land.
At this point, a zoo worker shot and killed Harambe. The incident was recorded on video and received broad international coverage, including controversy over whether the choice to kill Harambe was justified.
Upon seeing the video, I thought back to the summer of 2003, when I went on a gorilla trek in the Virunga Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The first day, I was taught how to approach a gorilla by avoiding direct eye contact and pretending to eat grass (I decided not to take a chance and I really did eat grass!). I was also assured that if a gorilla beat his chest or charged toward me, these were simply intimidation tactics and I was not in real danger.
The next day, together with seven other adventurers, I trekked up and down the mountain, following a gorilla family that was on the move. Finally, toward evening, our group caught up with the family and we spent an hour in their company. The gorillas seemed totally comfortable with our presence and we felt at ease amongst the gorillas. By the end of the visit, I no longer perceived that I was sitting amongst gorillas; instead, I considered them to be peers.
The experience was awesome. I sat opposite a silverback and we both ate grass, as if we were sitting together at a dinner table. A silverback gently brushed past me and looked apologetic for making me move aside. Baby gorillas, busy at play, rolled around at my feet, and I regretted not bringing a ball to organize a soccer tournament!
I marveled as I watched a female gorilla climb a steep hill with two babies cradled in her arm. I was saddened as I saw another female gorilla who was missing part of her arm, the result of being caught in a poacher’s trap.
There was a tender moment when an infant gorilla, riding on the back of a blackback, was lifted by a silverback and gently put on the ground. However, as soon as the silverback turned away, the infant again jumped on the blackback, and, again, he was removed by the silverback. Evidently, the silverback was trying to teach the infant to be more independent.
Of course, it would be highly unlikely that one of the gorillas I encountered was actually the father, sister, or cousin of Harambe. In addition, Harambe was a Western Lowland gorilla, and I visited Mountain gorillas. Still, Harambe’s death affected me in a very personal way, as if I truly did know members of his family. Was killing Harambe justified?
Zoo officials defended their decision. They argued that because a 450-pound gorilla was holding a three-year-old child in a concrete enclosure, the child’s life was necessarily in danger, regardless of the intent of the gorilla. Animal experts agreed that killing Harambe was the only reasonable alternative. Even Primatologist Jane Goodall, who believed that Harambe was trying to protect the child, concluded that the zoo had no choice but to kill him.
I asked students in my class at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) to write a rabbinic response as to whether the actions of the zoo were justified. Consistent with the opinions of the animal experts, the students concluded that killing Harambe was necessary because Harambe fell under the category of a rodef — one who is “pursuing” another in a way that could result in death. According to Jewish law, one is obligated to kill a rodef.
I was impressed with the research of my students, but I was not totally convinced by the rodef argument. According to Maimonides (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:6-7), the allowance to kill the rodef does not apply in a case where lesser means are possible to stop him. As concerns Harambe, I am not convinced that alternatives were thoroughly considered.
More importantly, despite the opinions of the experts and even certain behaviors that may have suggested otherwise, I don’t want to believe that Harambe could ever have been a rodef. The gorillas I got to know during my trek were personable, considerate, cautious, and peaceful. Is it possible that Harambe, perhaps even a son, brother, or cousin of these gorillas, could act any different? I suppose you had to have been there.
By Paul J. Blank