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  • Writer's pictureKATIE SCHULTE '18

Mourning Harambe

Photo by Liz Dufour, The Cincinnati Enquirer Zoo visitors made a memorial for Harambe at the statue of the gorillas at the entrance of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World.

On May 28, 2016, a 3 year old boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The gorilla, named Harambe, approached the boy and dragged him through the enclosure as his mother watched in terror. After serious consideration over the health of the boy and that of Harambe, a zoo worker unfortunately had to follow zoo protocol and shoot Harambe in fear of the child’s life. The decision to kill Harambe led to harsh criticism of the zoo and outrage spread throughout the media. This outrage soon spurred into memes that have taken over the Internet. Internet trolls soon began to attack the Cincinnati Zoo’s Twitter page that ultimately led to the deletion of their page. In August, the director of the zoo’s Twitter was hacked and filled with none other than Harambe memes. Clearly, the death of Harambe will have a permanent impact on the Cincinnati Zoo.

Even after three months, Harambe continues to dominate Twitter. Thanks to the power of the social media, Harambe was elevated from a local zoo animal to an Internet legend. Where these memes started is up to debate but the jokes’ rapid spread throughout Twitter is what made Harambe into an Internet star.

A sign at the gorilla exhibit describing the zoo’s conservation work over the years.

His fame, however, has caused nothing but heartbreak for the Cincinnati Zoo and the family of the boy. Over the years, the zoo has made countless strides towards gorilla conservation. However, all of their work towards conservation have been overshadowed by the death of Harambe. Both the zoo and the mother of the young boy have been belittled by the media. The immediate outrage over social media created a frenzy, causing many people to place the blame on the mother as well as the zoo. One Cincinnatian created a petition to have the mother reported to Hamilton County Child Services. Not only was the mother vilified for not being attentive but she also faced racial stereotypes imposed upon her by the media. The zoo also faced harsh criticism for their decision to kill Harambe.

According to the Cincinnati Zoo’s website, Harambe did not respond to the verbal commands. They also state that a tranquilizer could have created more problems if he had a negative reaction to the drug. After deep consideration, the zoo unfortunately had to shoot their beloved silver-back gorilla, Harambe. It was in no way an easy decision but the child’s safety was their first priority.

A sign within the gorilla exhibit filled with letters and artwork in memory of Harambe.

Others questioned the safety of the zoo’s barrier around the enclosure. Eventually, the online harassment came to a pinnacle when someone hacked into the zoo director, Thane Maynard’s Twitter account and filled it with Harambe memes. Within the next few days, The Cincinnati Zoo’s Twitter page was deleted. In their efforts to end the memes, the zoo has repeatedly urged people to stop using memes because their zoo family is still in the process of mourning his death. The Cincinnati Zoo website shares a message from Maynard on their page dedicated to Harambe: “This is a very emotional time at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is a big loss to the Cincinnati Zoo. Harambe was one of our most magnificent animals; he is a critically endangered species. We’re one of the key players in gorilla captive breeding & conservation. Everybody at the Zoo feels the loss.” In an email to The Associated Press, Maynard says they do not appreciate the memes, petitions, and signs. At the zoo, there is a board honoring Harambe with the gorilla exhibit.

The zookeepers shared an especially important message: “Gorillas are a lot like humans, being very social animals. We each had our own relationship with him just as humans have with each other. Each relationship was special, memorable, and they will never be forgotten. Losing a gorilla like Harambe is losing a family member.” Each of the keepers cherish the time they spent working with Harambe and building a relationship with him. To honor Harambe, they ask that people donate to gorilla conservations like the Mbeli Bai Study.

Letter on the Honoring Harambe sign from the zookeepers that worked with him.

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