​The challenge for zoos: Preventing another Harambe tragedy

The Cincinnati Zoo's gorilla exhibit has reopened for visitors with some small changes, such as protective netting and a wood barrier to keep children out. And, of course, without Harambe. But is this enough? According to some parents who took a look, no.

The killing of Harambe has reignited an ongoing debate over how to keep the world's top predator -- us -- from getting too close to wild animals. The endangered lowlands gorilla was trapped in a dangerous situation when a three-year-old child fell into his enclosure, leading the zoo to claim it was forced to destroy Harambe.

That debate is already taking place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) enforces the Animal Welfare Act and regulates 10,000 facilities, including zoos.

"In 2012 APHIS received a submission requesting the agency ban all public contact with exhibited animals," said APHIS spokesperson Tanya Espinosa. When APHIS asked for public comment, it got more than 15,000 of them, she said, so it's now "considering the revision of regulations to address public contact with dangerous animals" including more barriers and fencing.

No one, except groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), is advocating that zoos be put out of business. In fact, 181 million people a year visit them, more than the combined attendance of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). And most visitors are mothers with children who spend an average of four hours there.

Putting this country's zoos behind bars, or out of business, would hurt the economy because they're a $16 billion enterprise and employ 142,000 workers responsible for approximately 750,000 animals.

Zoos serve two other major purposes. They protect animals that would otherwise face extinction in the wild, and they serve as an educational facility so adults and children can learn about the animals and their environment.

But could they be better regulated? APHIS is "looking into" Harambe's death, said Espinoza, but there's no open investigation at this time. In an email, AZA spokesperson Rob Vernon simply praised the Cincinnati Zoo for "prompt resolution of the incident," and added that "incidents like this are very rare, and zoos remain very safe places for families to visit."

Vernon is essentially right. There has been the occasional tragedy, such as the one at SeaWorld in San Diego, where a trainer was dragged underwater by a killer whale and drowned. SeaWorld has since abandoned its killer whale program, but it wouldn't take much to once again stir this controversy.

If there's a flashpoint, it's likely to happen at one of the small "backyard zoos," which are found across the country, particularly in the South because the weather allows for year-round visitors. One estimate is that only 10 percent of all zoos nationwide undergo a strict accreditation by the AZA. The rest -- about 2,600 -- encounter a more modest checkup by APHIS.

For example, Florida zoos have seen at least four people mauled and killed by tigers. But big zoos aren't immune either. A Siberian tiger at the San Francisco zoo killed one person and injured two others.

Even animals such as monkeys, which are considered "safe," can do a lot of damage if they feel they, or their human providers, are in danger. In Connecticut, a woman's hands and face were completely mauled by a chimpanzee when she tried to help her friend control the animal who lived in her home.

Zookeepers and visitors alike oppose putting animals behind layers of barbed wire. "Making that emotional connection between an animal and a five-year-old has a huge effect on him for the rest of his life," said Sue Wahlgren, director of the Cosley Zoo in Illinois, a five-acre zoo that specializes in local animals.

Some would argue that "socializing" animals to interact with humans is beneficial and Harambe's death came about because he didn't know how to react to the presence of this child in his habitat. In previous instances, female gorillas at two different zoos actually "rescued" children who fell into their enclosures.

But socializing dangerous animals is a two-edged sword, said Wahlgren, because it forces them to change their personalities and may ultimately make them more dangerous. If they have no natural fear of humans, as many bears don't, the interaction when they seek food can result in injury or death, as it often has in national parks like Yellowstone.

The best bet, said Wahlgren, is to keep animals in as much of their natural habitat as possible and stimulate them whenever possible by hiding their food and keeping them busy. "We've come a long way from cages, and we don't want to go back," she said. A return to the era of bars and expensive barriers wouldn't help animals or humans. It also wouldn't benefit her zoo, which operates on a tight budget.

But she doesn't deny that there will be tragedies like Harambe. "Car accidents happen too," she pointed out.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.