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Our Chief Conservation Officer Dr. Jordan Schaul Urges Animal Activists to Forgive the World Class Cincy Zoo

In my opinion, in regard to the death of Harambe a month after the gorilla’s untimely death, the Cincinnati Zoo made the best decision possible under horrible circumstances.

In the wake of the unfortunate and terribly tragic event at the Zoo, I was invited to participate in a radio interview with The Takeaway, a radio program affiliated with WNYC and Public Radio International.

Jack D’Isidoro, an award-winning freelance multimedia journalist and producer who contributes regularly to the New York Times, reached out to me on May 31st. Unfortunately, I was unable to share my thoughts with his intended audience.  I was busy training dogs at my new boarding and enrichment facility in Los Angeles and had missed his email and phone call.

This week, a month after Harambe’s death, I discovered that I also missed an email alert regarding a post I published in Nat Geo’s online editorial news publication on the future of zoos. The piece (http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/13/39842/) was cited in a Washington Post article concerning Harambe’s fate, which reminded me that nearly a month has passed since we lost this great ape.

Although I did post an article about the tragedy on my public Facebook page hours after it was reported, I never got a chance to share my sentiment publicly. When I heard the news, I was immediately struck by the thought of a zoo having to make such a terrible sacrifice and was grieving for Harambe who I have never even met or knew of.  I wanted to let colleagues and FB followers, zoo professionals and activists alike, know of this unfortunate news.

The Washington Post article (http://gmailnews.com/what-harambes-death-means-for-a-critically-endangered-species-of-gorilla-washington-post/) included commentary from a notable zoo historian who I once participated in a radio interview with (http://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/07/12/daily-circuit-future-of-zoos) and Dr. Michael Hutchins, my esteemed colleague and friend, and a prominent zoo and wildlife biologist.

These zoo experts addressed the big picture—the conservation relevance of losing a valuable zoo gorilla. They discussed the impact of the loss of this one animal’s potential contribution to the reserve gene pool, which is essentially what a captive population of this critically endangered species represents.

Frankly, the fact that the gorilla is an endangered species still hasn’t crossed my mind in regard to this loss of life. This was a beautiful and sentient creature who died at his prime, whether he was in a zoo or free-ranging or contributing to the captive gene pool or not.

I will never have a chance to read and process all the rumor and rhetoric surrounding Harambe that has been generated by the public and the responses from professional experts. However,  I keep thinking about him and what a loss this must be for the zoo keepers and staff who cared for him. The staff had to make a horrible life and death decision on his behalf in less than a second. You can’t wait for a tranquilizer to take effect when you have to respond in a moment’s notice.

To put it in perspective, I once darted an orphaned, 300 lb. subadult grizzly bear that I raised from a 9-month-old cub with a syringe pole (similar to a jab stick) while I was standing a few feet away from her at a wildlife sanctuary in Alaska.  There was no barrier between us. As she looked the other way, I quickly injected her. I had time on my hands to prepare, no public distraction or interference, and my colleagues from Alaska Department of Fish & Game were on hand to monitor and assist if needed. An unusual and unique circumstance dictated that the animal be tranquilized on exhibit.

However, in a zoo setting far more resources and preparation would go in to such a scheduled chemical immobilization planned for a potentially injurious large animal and any chemical restraint would be conducted behind-the-scenes or before or after visiting hours. Nonetheless, I remember that it felt like a long time had passed before this bear was adequately sedated. In reality, it was at least several minutes.

In Harambe’s case, this was an unscheduled and obvious emergency and darting the animal was really not a viable option.  Waiting for a tranquillizer to take effect would add substantially more time to an already precarious situation for the boy even if Harambe was indeed protecting him. When an animal recieves a remote dart injection, it is typically a surprise to them and they usually don’t like it at all. They react as you might react if you were darted with a flying syringe from a great distance. What if he was holding the child and then collapsed on top of him due to the effects of a potent sedative? Anything could have happened. Regardless, I was touched by the public outcry and very much understand the emotions elicited and the public response.

Again, the Zoo made a very difficult choice, but I believe it was the right one. I very much like the Cincinnati Zoo, but I am in no way obligated to defend their actions. I do sit on a board of a zoo advocacy organization, but I’m not financially compensated by the non-profit organization. I just believe in the mission of zoos and I love charismatic creatures that receive exemplary human care in these conservation centers. I have been very fortunate to have interacted with many wonderful zoo animals over the years and the experiences have been tremendously gratifying and rewarding for me.  I can only hope I enriched the lives of these animals in return.

I was moved after watching some of the footage as Harambe seemed to embrace the boy as he reached out to hold him. I can only speculate that he was not acting aggressively toward the child and had no such intention to do so. The scene is imprinted in my brain and it is unforgettable. I have a lot of thoughts on the tragedy as a former zoo keeper and curator and as a conservationist. But first and foremost, I’m an animal lover like so many of my friends and zoo colleagues and the readership communities who follow Huffington Post.  So this decision was hard to process even for someone like me who appreciates the challenges this precarious human-captive animal interaction created for the Zoo.

There are clearly mixed reviews on how the Cincinnati Zoo handled the situation even among some of my colleagues. Some just hope the story dies down. But I’m haunted by what transpired and I felt compelled to offer my perspective as a zoo patron and former zoo employee.

I think zoos do their very best to contain zoo animals and in recent years they have spent extra resources on making sure people can’t breach perimeter barriers and get into zoo enclosures, but it is the public’s responsibility to keep our children safe and that responsibility falls largely on parents.

In fact, I think that some exhibits should have age limitation restrictions for access. Children who are too young often can’t even appreciate the magic of an intimate encounter with a majestic animal icon in a zoo setting like a silverback gorilla. More often than not they seem to incite animals unintentionally by pounding on glass or by running around screaming and crying.

Those are not ways of respecting or dignifying a zoo animal ambassador and their parents should know better. Hopefully teachers and other attendants will also learn from this.

Rather then enriching the experience for the animal, I’m pretty confident some of the behavior of young children leaves sentient zoo animals frustrated, if not demoralized. Anyone can see it is occasionally stimulating for the animals and from a gorilla’s perspective, for example, it can be perceived as play when they get to interact with rambunctious kids through glass barriers. However, we should expect some ettiquette from zoo visitors. They are guests at a public venue and these animal ambassadors deserve some respect from patrons.

In my opinion, the zoo was left with no choice but to dispatch a beautiful, healthy and robust adult male gorilla. And again, what a terrible predicament for the animal care team to find themselves in.

I recall an incident where a male gorilla broke his neck from a shallow fall in a freak accident in an indoor enclosure at another Ohio zoo. This was twenty years ago. I was in the building  doing relief work as a zoo keeper in another animal unit. Unfortunately, no primate care staff member witnessed the incident and there were few helpful reports from patrons. Like the event with Harambe, the other gorilla death was quite unprecedented and has not happened before or since to my knowledge.

In the case of the fallen gorilla, one of our veterinary clinicians responded immediately and tried to resuscitate the animal after the public was ushered out of the building. His three other adult male companions were quickly lured off exhibit into their bedrooms with issued recall commands by a trained and responsive keeper staff. Relocating the other apes was neccessary so the vet could access the unconscious animal. The veterinarian, who is board certified in zoo and wildlife medicine, was on the scene just minutes after the emergency was announced through our radio communication system, but sadly he was not able to revive the gorilla after several attempts to administer CPR.

In Harambe’s case (based on what I saw in video footage), there was no time to recall him or perhaps other apes in close proximity because the child was already in the exhibit, having breached barriers.

Although Harambe may indeed have been protecting this little boy, the surface features of that gorilla enclosure are to some degree slightly unforgiving to even a much sturdier and more agile young gorilla of comparable age and size to the child. The boy is really lucky to have left   the situation relatively unscathed. These enclosures are definitely designed for great apes and not little boys.

The child could have easily broken his neck or otherwise been seriously or fatally injured in all the commotion and all by mere accident. These are big, fast moving primates. Hence, the name “great ape” is an appropriate label for these, the largest of the non-human primates.

By just working around wild animals in captivity, including three species of great apes, provides me with enough insight into the potential hazards in a zoo enclosure. Even the exhibit void of animals can be dangerous for humans to navigate. Keepers are careful when they clean enclosures. It is easy to slip or fall or trip on enrichment items or artificial rock work.

Oddly enough, the barriers in high rise shopping centers and other public attractions from Niagara Falls to walkway and automobile bypass structures around the country remain in conditions where barriers can be easily breached by unsupervised children. And we hear about tragedies when young children fall to their death or are left severely injured. Who can forget the devastating loss Eric Clapton faced when his young son fell to his death from a high rise apartment building? And his son was at home with his mom and a maid.

I may be an exceptionally over-educated “retired” zoo keeper and curator, but those are the thoughts that I would have shared had I not been training animals during the scheduled radio interview that I was invited to participate in. Rest in peace Harambe. You are missed.

We invite you to join Dr. Schaul’s verified public facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/jordan.schaul




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