Will Gorilla's Death Change How Zoo Animals Are Treated?

As the vigils end and the rage quiets, people are left to wonder what effects, if any, the death of Harambe - a critically endangered western lowland gorilla who was shot by Cincinnati Zoo officials after a toddler climbed into his enclosure - will have on the future of zoos.

Some say that the aftermath of the event is not the time to rally against gorilla captivity. "A human made a mistake," Ron L. Kagan, executive director and chief executive officer of The Detroit Zoo, one of the most progressive zoos in the country and a leading institution for animal welfare, told The Dodo. "It's an incredibly tragic outcome of a terrible accident."

The actions of the child's parents were investigated by the police, who determined that no criminal charges apply to the case. A petition raising concerns about the welfare of the child at home gained hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Some people (over 187,000 at the time of writing) are advocating for what they'd call Harambe's Law, a formal statute that would put responsibility on zoo visitors for the welfare of endangered animals like Harambe.

Harambe | Facebook/Cincinnati Zoo

"In light of the recent tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo in the death of western lowland gorilla Harambe and the enormous loss of this critically endangered animal, we would like to pass Harambe's Law, so there are legal consequences when an endangered animal is harmed or killed due to the negligence of visitors," the petition states. "If this law is enacted, it will not only protect the animals, but will hold individuals accountable for actions resulting in harm or death of an animal."

The zoo has also taken preventative measures: It has built a higher fence, now 42 inches high, the same height as the fence around its lion exhibit.

The new fence the Cincinnati Zoo built around Gorilla World, where Harambe lived | Cincinnati Zoo

"Our exhibit goes above and beyond standard safety requirements, but in light of what happened, we have modified the outer public barrier to make entry even more difficult," Thane Maynard, the zoo's director, wrote in a release.

Kagan fears that steps like this could be signs of moving backwards. "If we look back 40 or 50 years, you'd go to zoos and see animals behind bars," Kagan said. "You'd see them in a way that they're imprisoned, truly imprisoned, which means they're protected and people are protected."

The zoo, which had planned to breed Harambe to help boost dwindling numbers of western lowland gorillas, performed a necropsy on Harambe's body, and also salvaged and froze Harambe's genetic material. This is because the Cincinnati Zoo is part of the Species Survival Program management group, which manages 360 gorillas at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions and seeks to retain healthy genetic diversity for the endangered animals these zoos breed.

People have also been asking whether the other gorillas at the zoo have had time with Harambe's body to carry out the natural grieving process. The zoo is currently home to 10 western lowland gorillas.

According to the zoo, Chewie and Mara, 20-year-old half sisters, were to help Harambe transition from teenager to well-balanced silverback. "They were selected for this because they are self-assured, confident females," Michelle Curley, communications director for the zoo, told The Dodo. "They are doing fine. Eating and behaving normally." Cincinnati Zoo's other gorillas, a family group of eight gorillas that includes three little ones and is headed by silverback Jomo, continues to follow their normal routine, according to Curley.

It is unclear whether the gorillas were allowed any time with Harambe's body.

Primatologist Jane Goodall - who also questioned whether the gorillas were allowed to grieve - has refrained from making a formal statement on the incident, a representative for the Jane Goodall Institute told The Dodo. But Goodall wrote a letter of sympathy to Maynard, pointing out that the gorilla appeared to be putting his arm around the child.

The Dodo asked Kagan if the zoos of the future might not have great apes at all. "I think that in the future zoos will hold fewer different kinds of species," Kagan said. "A zoo that might now have orangutans, chimps and gorillas, might just end up having one of those, and giving them more space and more tailored environments to their needs."

This is the first time a visitor has gotten into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, which has been open since 1978. The boy who climbed into Harambe's pit did not sustain serious injuries.

"We have nothing new to report at this time and are not doing interviews," an automated reply from the public relations representative at the zoo states. "We appreciate your patience and understanding."

Gorilla World, the exhibit where Harambe lived, will reopen to the public on Tuesday.