The shooting death of a rare gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden comes amid a $12 million fundraising effort to expand the exhibit where the 400-pound silverback lived.
The Cincinnati Zoo, which didn't return requests for comment, in January said it had reached the halfway mark in raising the funds for expanding Gorilla World, the zoo's most popular exhibit.
"It will also allow us to show gorillas every day of the year," Thane Maynard, the zoo's director, said in a video posted on the zoo's website that touted plans for an indoor addition to the outdoor gorilla exhibit. "It also helps us tell the gorilla story, which is the main reason zoos are around, which is to tell the story of wildlife in the wild, their natural life and what it takes to protect them in the future."
But there's disagreement over whether exposing adults and children to animals they might otherwise never see in person teaches them about wildlife and, therefore, emboldens efforts to protect species at risk of going extinct.
"They say it's educational, but that model is not working. In the U.S. and Europe, people are going to zoos and having hot dogs, while animals are going extinct because of bush meat and disease in the wild," said Ed Stewart, president and co-founder of Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
"You can learn more in 15 minutes on your iPhone about the specifics of a gorilla. You don't take your children to a jail to teach them about human behavior," said Stewart. "Some forward-looking educator in the zoo world will have to look at this, there is no reason to keep a collection of animals."
People seem to accept that the way to learn about gorillas, tigers and elephants is to see them up close, and "that somehow benefits conservation, as opposed to seeing them online, in books or films, without danger or risks," said Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA.
Yet one person with knowledge of the zoo business said the decision to kill a 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe after a three-year-old boy managed to get into the exhibit was unlikely to dent ticket sales, which along with parking, account for $10.8 million, or 27 percent, of the Cincinnati Zoo's annual revenue.
"We don't see a drop in attendance when something like this occurs. If anything, there's a bit of a spike because of the attention paid to the zoo," said Bob Vernon, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the oldest and largest accrediting organization for zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and more than half a dozen other countries.
AZA-accredited zoos support gorilla conservation in Africa, where an estimated 95,000 Western gorillas are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. Another roughly 800 gorillas are held by humans, with coordinated breeding programs in place to ensure the survival of the threatened species, according to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).
"We don't have specific engineering standards saying how you build a gorilla exhibit. It's more based on what we know is needed to protect the public and then animal," said Vernon. "In this particular case, an enterprising toddler found his way through an area that was primarily sealed."
The incident, which left the child unharmed, sparked debate about whether the parent or zoo was to blame.
"When you shoot a gorilla, something went terribly wrong, whether you blame it on the parent or the zoo. I blame it on the people that decided that Harambe should be born in captivity and live his whole life in captivity," said Stewart of PAWS. "When you have glass windows where gorillas can get close to people separated by a piece of plexiglass, you are taunting the gorilla, laughing about how frustrated the animal is."
Stewart and others expressed hope that the gorilla's killing would start a conversation about ending the breeding of gorillas and other animals in captivity, pointing to the recent decision by SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) to halt its controversial program of breeding orcas.
"The biggest tragedy is it was avoidable. Dangerous wild animals should never be where people can get close to them," said Born Free's Roberts. "The real question is whether these types of animals should be in captivity at all."
Like SeaWorld and its whales, zoos no longer pay to have gorillas and other animals taken from the wild. Instead, zoos lend animals to each other for breeding under a program run by the AZA. Harambe was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, where he lived until being sent to the Cincinnati Zoo as part of a Western lowland gorilla Species Survival Plan breeding program.
While Harambe had not yet reached breeding maturity, biologists had collected viable sperm that could help maintain his species' genetic diversity. The loss of Harambe at a zoo known to be a leading facility for gorilla breeding "is a big loss for the zoo community," said Gerald Dick, executive director of WAZA.
"What really bothers me is on the news, the little fluff stories about a baby gorilla or baby elephant being born, and how great it is. But nobody thinks about the fact that that gorilla or elephant is going to live in a cage all its life," said Stewart of PAWS, which runs three sanctuaries in California for animals, including elephants retired from circus work.
In order to exhibit animals, a business must be licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of about 2,800 licensed exhibitors, less than 10 percent, or 217, are AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos, a number that includes the Cincinnati Zoo and SeaWorld.
Not getting accredited by the AZA can mean an institution is no longer eligible for some grants and government funding. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium had been an accredited AZA member for 29 years, but is no longer after the association upgraded its safety policy to restrict zookeepers' contact with elephants.
An elephant crushed a zookeeper to death there during an exercise walk in 2002.