6 min read

New Details About Harambe’s Death Just Emerged

His enclosure didn't meet safety standards.

The vigils for Harambe - a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla who was shot and killed by Cincinnati Zoo officials in May after a young boy climbed into his enclosure - are largely over, but a federal investigation is still trying to understand what happened on that day and how it could have been prevented.

In a report issued on Thursday, USDA inspectors said that the barrier meant to separate visitors from the gorillas wasn't in compliance with federal standards. However, the USDA had never before cited the zoo for the reportedly insufficient fence over the exhibit's 38-year history, including at a recent inspection in April.

"It became apparent on May 28 that the barrier was no longer effective," Tanya Espinosa, USDA spokeswoman, told the Associated Press.

USDA inspectors just reported that during an inspection on June 6, there was "some slack" in wire cables in the barrier and that a visitor could have "manipulated [the cables] to an 8-inch gap."

That the enclosure was substandard wasn't surprising to Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, who said the finding "shows the deficiencies in both the modern American zoo and the regulatory scheme used to assess wild animal facilities."

"The USDA is expected only to enforce minimum standards and with a limited number of inspectors and [considering] the might of the zoo industry it's no surprise that things slip - with potentially deadly consequences for zoo animals and human visitors," Roberts told The Dodo. "What's needed is a complete overhaul of the rules for licensed animal exhibitors, full dedication to the government's inspection program and the immediate closure of any facilities that cannot pass muster."

The USDA report, which is still ongoing, has also determined that, in deciding to shoot and kill Harambe, zoo officials did the right thing. At the time, many people disagreed about whether or not Harambe was a threat to the child.

When the boy went under a railing, over wires and through a moat to reach Harambe on May 28, shouts rang out soon after people noticed the boy was in the pit. The female gorillas were called out of the enclosure, but Harambe stayed with the boy. Harambe pulled the boy along the shallow moat, then stood him up and appeared to inspect his clothes.

Zoo officials made the decision to shoot Harambe because they feared tranquilizing him would take too long.

Afterwards, people all over the world mourned the death of the gorilla. Some animal welfare advocates worried what the incident would mean for animals kept in zoos.

"If we look back 40 or 50 years, you'd go to zoos and see animals behind bars. You'd see them in a way that they're imprisoned, truly imprisoned, which means they're protected and people are protected," Ron L. Kagan, executive director and chief executive officer of The Detroit Zoo, a leading institution for zoo animal welfare, told The Dodo at the time.

Kagan feared that the backlash from the Harambe incident could cause zoos to move backward in their treatment of animals - and their hard-won naturalistic enclosures. "When there's an intention to go into an enclosure, it's almost impossible to prevent that," Kagan said.

The zoo has since erected a taller, nylon mesh fence around "Gorilla World," where Harambe died.

Because of illegal hunting, habitat loss, disease and climate change, Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered - only an estimated 100,000 are left on Earth.

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