Danielle McLaughlin: 'The zoo is the elephant in the room'

The shooting of Harambe at Cincinnati Zoo has provoked outrage.
REUTERS

The shooting of Harambe at Cincinnati Zoo has provoked outrage.

Opinion: In her sixth 'Kiwi in New York' column, Danielle McLaughlin ponders the lessons from the tragic death of a silverback gorilla. 

Wellingtonians this week celebrated the arrival of Zuri the giraffe.  Adorable in her custom-built windowed crate, Zuri made the epic 650-kilometre journey from Auckland Zoo on the back of a flatbed truck. En route, she evoked squeals of delight from schoolchildren.  At Wellington Zoo, she joined her grandmother and aunt. She is expected to be out and about in public at Wellington Zoo any day now.

Here in the US this week, we grappled with an entirely different kind of news on the zoo front.  The shooting death of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla. It has brought much handwringing and introspection.  The 182kg silverback was shot to save the life of a toddler who broke into the "Gorilla World" enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo.  Harambe's species is critically endangered. We are asking who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened.  We are also asking fundamental questions about the ethics of zoos.

The death of a silverback gorilla in Cincinatti prompts Danielle McLaughlin to think twice about visiting zoos.

The death of a silverback gorilla in Cincinatti prompts Danielle McLaughlin to think twice about visiting zoos.

As to blame, the toddler's parents have been subject to that most cowardly of bullying, the online variety. In addition, nearly half a million people have signed a change.org demanding an investigation by the zoo, the police, and child protection services and asking that his parents be "held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life".

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But the bigger questions surround the ethical quandary of zoos.  On the one hand, and at their best, zoos are important educational and research facilities. They can ensure the continuation of endangered species. The tuatara captive breeding programme at the Southland Museum, though perhaps not technically a "zoo", is a good example.  But on the other hand, and at their worst, they are what PETA calls "pitiful prisons." Poor replications of natural habitats. Where families are broken up. Where animals are denied their natural instincts to roam or to forage.

Cincinnati Zoo is the second-oldest zoo in America, second only to Central Park Zoo in Manhattan.  A recent visit on a cloying and hot New York City day had me thinking out loud. What on earth, literally, were a central asian snow leopard, an Antarctic king penguin and a South American emerald tree boa all doing just north of Times Square, in the south-east corner of the park, suffering to various degrees in 33 degree weather?  I supposed the snake was probably OK.

"Harambee" means to "pull together" in Swahili.  In the context of protecting the animals we share the Earth with, it remains to be seen whether that means more zoos, or fewer. Certainly, there are no clear answers. But it's important that we ask the questions. I for one will be thinking a bit more deeply before I visit that south-east corner of Central Park again.

* Expat Kiwi Danielle McLaughlin, a Manhattan lawyer and American TV political commentator, is the Sunday Star-Times' correspondent in the USA.

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