Gorilla death in Cincinnati a reminder that Canadian zoos have firepower, too

The shooting death of a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this week after a three-year-old boy fell into the ape's enclosure has raised questions about what protocols and tools Canadian zoos have at their disposal to handle a similar situation.

'There are always security staff in place that would carry weapons,' says veterinary professor Dale A. Smith

Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot last weekend after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure. (Jeff McCurry/Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden/Cincinnati Enquirer/AP)

The shooting death of a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this week after a three-year-old boy fell into the ape's enclosure has raised questions about what protocols and tools Canadian zoos have at their disposal to handle a similar situation. 

The 17-year-old, 180-kilogram western lowland gorilla named Harambe was killed by a special response team after it was decided that the toddler's life was in danger, though there are conflicting accounts about what Harambe's true intentions may have been. 

Tranquillizing Harambe was not an option, since most tranquillizers take several minutes to work and can induce violent behaviour. 

A video of the incident prompted indignation across the internet and set off a debate about whether it was really necessary to kill Harambe (there are conflicting interpretations of what is actually going on in the video). The incident also reignited a decades-old debate about zoos and whether their educational value outweighs the negative impacts on animal welfare.

Officials killed gorilla after a 4-year-old fell into exhibit moat 2:41

"I think that event, that very sad event, really should be looked at as a teachable moment for accredited zoos," said Massimo Bergamini, executive director of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums.

"I think we have to look at our procedures. We have to look at what went wrong, understand, make sure it doesn't happen again. On the flip side, it has created a debate, and debates are good."

Weapons training

Toronto City Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker, a member of the Toronto Zoo board of directors, has already said the incident in Cincinnati would prompt additional checks of the zoo's enclosures.  

While multiple zoos declined to give specific details of their plans for dealing with breaches of animal enclosures because of the "sensitivity of the situation" (as one Toronto Zoo employee put it), there are protocols in place to deal with events similar to the one that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo.

"It's not like all staff carry weapons," said Dale A. Smith, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. 

The western lowland gorillas have been a popular exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo for years, and the shooting of Harambe prompted an outpouring of sympathy for the beloved ape. (William Philpott/Reuters)

"There are always security staff in place that would carry weapons, and they have to undergo weapons training. In some situations, veterinarians might also carry a weapon if the situation calls for it."

No legitimate zoo or animal operation would operate without safety procedures in place, she said. 

Ultimately, if a zoo has dangerous animals, it needs to have a lethal option on hand in order to guarantee the safety of the humans working and visiting there, Smith said.

Tigers out!

The U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums told local media that the Cincinnati Zoo handled the breach of the gorilla enclosure correctly. Spokesman Rob Vernon said the association's accreditation procedure requires members to conduct four safety drills per year and to have a response plan in place for dangerous animals.

Smith said Canadian zoos would have similar "dry-run drills" and escaped-animal protocols.

"[It's] a bit like a fire drill," she said. "Somebody will call out on the radio, 'Tigers out!' and everyone has to know their roles. The senior staff might know it's a drill, but the junior staff certainly don't."

People attend a vigil outside the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Many who watched a video posted online of the boy's interaction with the gorilla after he fell into the enclosure felt Harambe did not intend to harm the toddler. (William Philpott/Reuters)

The Cincinnati incident, Smith says, is likely to refuel the debate about the value of zoos — for research, conservation and education. 

Some enthusiasts, such as celebrity zookeeper and TV personality Jack Hanna, have argued zoos are essential for education and create an emotional connection between people and animals. But there is a growing movement pushing to close all zoos once and for all. 

"I call them (conservation and education) the two great mythologies of modern zoos, and they're slowly being dismantled," said Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity. "This whole idea that you see presented in zoos like Toronto — that you know, we're going to captive breed animals and replenish their stocks in the wild — it's largely a myth.

"Education is another great myth. You know, so many people say that our kids come, and they're educated, or visitors come, and they're educated, but there's really no evidence that that's happened. What you usually get in zoos are factoids that you can get on Google in five minutes."

About the Author

Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.