The Gorilla and the Fallen Boy

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Essay by Anthony L. Rose, Ph.D.,
President and Founder, The Biosynergy Insitute, Palos Verdes, CA, USA
Consulting Director of Conservation, The Gorilla Foundation/, Woodside, CA

How a Modern Folktale Awakens an Archetypal Dream.

 It’s all about who’s holding the “gun.” Put a big game rifle in the hands of frightened people who believe gorillas are hostile monsters that maul women and children, and they’ll shoot to kill. Put gorilla sign language in the hands of compassionate people who know that gorillas are gentle souls who protect their young, and they’ll signal to care.

As a social psychologist with over 50 years of professional experience studying, training, caring for, and conserving human and non-human primates, including gorillas, I can state with confidence that Harambe was shot and killed in large part because the people at Cincinnati Zoo hadn’t yet built a trusting synergistic relationship with their new silverback. Had this accident occurred at the zoo where he was bred and raised, it’s likely Harambe would be alive today. And the boy who fell into his exhibit would be fine as well.

But when the American Zoo Association decided to move 15-year-old Harambe from his birthplace and home at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, it’s likely nobody in Cincinnati was trained to talk with the young silverback gorilla the way caregivers at Gladys Porter had. The Cincinnati Zoo gorilla-keepers worked out how to manage Harambe their way … likely did so with some success … and at a crucial moment, failed. After the boy fell in the moat, they could convince the two female gorillas who were born and raised in their Zoo to leave the exhibit, but not Harambe.

Gorilla Talk. When a great ape is born in a zoo, it’s human caregivers talk with baby and mother, using a distinct language of words, sounds, and gestures co-invented by those particular people and apes to facilitate health, well-being, and bonding… a humanized gorilla talk. That unique communication grows over the years into a personal understanding that can rarely be replicated elsewhere without special training. When gorillas move to a new zoo, it’s best if their human “parents” go with to smooth the way, to help new caregivers and new gorilla cohorts befriend them, and to teach them to trust their new family and habitat. There’s no way around it: captive born gorillas are enculturated from birth and throughout childhood: to suddenly stick them in a foreign culture without familiar support in the transition can be inhumane, demoralizing and dangerous.

There is a language that gorillas and other great apes have learned so they can talk more easily with different people. More than two dozen apes have used American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with humans and one another. Two western lowland gorillas have learned and used ASL to talk with scores of different people over the years. In fact there is a computer application and curriculum for zoo caregivers to learn ASL from one of those gorillas; yes, Koko the gorilla is the teacher!

Coincidentally, Koko’s male gorilla compatriot for the past 20 years is Ndume, on loan from Cincinnati Zoo. Ndume moved in with Koko in hopes he would breed with her, with the stipulation that he would not be taught ASL. That made his integration into his new gorilla family more difficult. Eventually he and Koko created their own special language, a mix of ASL and a culture-specific gorilla gestural language that most nonverbal great apes invent on their own. Now they communicate easily, if not with absolute clarity to their human caregivers.

Since Cincinnati Zoo leadership enforces the policy that captive gorillas must be left to “communicate naturally,” without human sign language, it is understandable that their gorilla-keepers might not be taught how to “talk” with an incoming silverback. The extent to which they came to understand one another’s attitudes and emotions would have expanded, were apes and humans trained to use some common gestural language. Had Harambe been able to ask his human compatriots “what do this?” as Koko does when something unusual shows up in her enclosure, the answer “bring that me” may have solved the problem of the fallen boy quickly. Without the capacity to carry out rational discussions between human and ape, a solvable problem is much more likely to become an emotional crisis,

Emotional Messages. That the females Chewie and Mara chose food over the attraction of the little boy, but Harambe did not, is odd in light of female gorilla nurturing instincts. Perhaps the females were retreating from the hubbub, while the silverback was acting to protect his family and his habitat by moving towards the intruder and the crowd. Did Harambe mistake his caregivers’ sense of urgency as being anger, and the females’ retreat as danger warnings? Did he experience the cries of fear that came from the boy’s family on the ledge above him as hostile threats, causing him to rush himself and the boy to a safer side of the exhibit?

No one who has researched gorilla-human relationships can deny that Harambe was overwhelmed with emotional messages that he knew were directed at him. The fact that amidst all the commotion, the gorilla spent much of his time holding the boy upright, keeping him from drowning, suggests concern for the little helpless human. Some have said that Harambe used the boy as part of his “gorilla threat display.” Indeed that could be the case when the gorilla took off running through the water; not to injure the boy, but to impress the crowd with his power and agility. Harambe may not have realized that a human three-year-old was more physically vulnerable than a hearty young gorilla. The clip of that event, whether display or play, made millions of YouTube viewers believe Harambe was a dangerous beast.

Years ago a silverback at Los Angeles Zoo taught me that our behavior when peering down from the gallery matters. Each spring for five years I took my college students to research ape and human behavior at LA zoo. During lunch-break I stood atop the exhibit with my co-teacher, gorilla-keeper Jennifer Chatfield, and every year Caesar the resident silverback picked up a fistful of sod and threw it at me with remarkable accuracy. Jennifer assured me that Caesar was asserting his possessiveness: she had raised him from birth and was his surrogate mother. She said he was keenly aware of everyone who is out there watching him.

Jennifer was out of town the last year I taught at the zoo, so I conducted the class alone. At that lunch break I stood by myself looking down at Caesar. He stared at me for a while, reached down to pick up some sod, and hurled it right at me. Even alone, I symbolized a passive threat to his social accord. Imagine how he might have felt if I had screamed epithets at him each year. Gorilla feelings are deep and complex, and they stick.

When Koko’s brother Michael was 8 years old, he used ASL to report nightmares of his mother’s murder by poachers in the African rain-forest. That horrible event had occurred when he was two, long before he came to America and learned sign language. The video of Michael signing his nightmare shows his indelible memory of horrid images and painful feelings. Harambe’s emotions when the boy fell, his gorilla compatriots retreated, and people began screaming at him were likely a blend of Caesar’s sense of distant threat and Michael’s deep internal fear and anguish.

Media Folklore. There is no doubt Harambe was terrified when he grabbed and dragged the boy across the exhibit. What I saw on video was a scared ape behaving in an instinctive gorilla-fashion, the way a wild silverback might do with his gorilla child when he realized poachers in the forest were stalking them. During my visits to hunting camps in Africa, most hunters I interviewed only tracked gorillas in wet season when the sound of their movement wouldn’t cause the apes to grab their young and run. The most macho silverback prefers to flee rather than fight when humans are involved. In the forest Harambe would have dropped the alien boy and fled into the bush. In the zoo he had nowhere to escape the fear and anger of humans.

It appeared in later parts of the video that the gorilla held the boy upright out of the water, and showed him to someone in front and above them, outside the enclosure. At the end, Harambe did seem to move purposefully to the far corner and stand in a “strength-display” posture on the ground with the boy seated in front of him. Was he realizing that the people above him wanted him to back off and leave the little human alone? Had the communications between ape and people begun working finally? Was his move to that high spot an obedient response to a command … from a familiar zookeeper … is that when the security guard pulled out a rifle and shot and killed him?

So far, a week later, we have seen no video of the killing and been told and shown almost nothing about the weapon, the shooter, the person who gave the kill order, or even who removed the boy and the dead gorilla from the exhibit. If this had been a police shooting of a dangerous criminal holding a hostage, all those stories would have become media folklore. We’d be heralding the sharpshooter for impeccable accuracy and hearing the reports of relief from the rescuers. We’d see video of the boy reunited with his parents, and of the Cincinnati Mayor giving medals of Honor to the zookeepers and security team.

Instead, this event is being treated by hundreds of thousands of people on social media in the same way many react to the police killing of an innocent young man from the neighborhood. While officials and zoo leaders declare the shooting of Harambe an unfortunate necessity, the events at Cincinnati Zoo are seen by many people worldwide as the murder of a misunderstood and innocent person; someone who was just trying, clumsily, to protect himself and his cohorts, and to help a small human boy who had fallen into his small gorilla world.

Archetypal Awakening. Alas, this tragic story awakens a flood of famous archetypal fables in our memories. Tales that populate our minds and color our feelings about dangerous beasts, about lost boys, about falling into the abyss, and about being rescued from the jaws of death.

Did the person who shot Harambe see the gorilla as King Kong the abductor? Did he recall that in that allegory the woman learns to love the gorilla? Wikipedia says: “Kong takes Ann and flees into the jungle where she gradually wins him over … and eventually she begins to grasp Kong’s intelligence and capacity for emotion.” In the video we see Harambe and the boy look long into one another’s eyes; had they connected at that moment, and is the fallen boy himself now grieving the death of his new friend?

Did the fallen boy’s parents consider the ape akin to the Big Bad Wolf, and liken the shooter to the Woodsman who saved Little Red Riding Hood? When they comfort their son, will they try to convince him that he was in the jaws of death; that the gorilla had pretended to care, but only so he could keep and kill the boy? Like Little Red in Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” the three-year-old boy who spent a few fantastic minutes in the hands of a great silverback gorilla was likely “excited and scared.” Will his parents acknowledge the elation he felt while facing the beast? Will we?

Consider the boy who, for a moment, saw the beauty in the beast. Consider the parents of the boy who believed the beast would kill their child. Consider the gorillas Chewie and Mara who watched their strong new silverback dragged bloody and dead from their playground. Consider the other gorillas in the exhibit, and the humans who take care of those gorillas, who were learning how to care for Harambe, and who all feel a huge empty space in their lives. Consider the person who shot and killed a gorilla he had learned to respect, and the persons who sadly gave the orders, and the people standing at the exhibit who screamed in fear for the boy, and who now weep for the gorilla.

Consider Harambe, a strong young silverback gorilla whose sympathy said help the fallen boy, who’s fear forced him to grab the child and run to safety, and whose protective instinct made him stand by the boy and face a crowd of hostile strangers and commanding zoo keepers, awaiting his fate.

Imagine yourself in the shoes and skins, in the hearts and minds and souls of all those people and gorillas who are part of this new archetypal drama. They were there, each and all, living in their diverse versions of reality. Imagine them all and consider their deeply emotional stories.

This is not a tale of zoo or family negligence, of animal rights or human safety, of endangered species or racial prejudice, of corporate expediency or human Speciesism. This is a dark entry into the secret door of an archetypal world that has come to life.

May those sweet souls who lived and died at Cincinnati Zoo last weekend suffer their grief, savor their elation, absolve their guilt, renew their spirits and move on — forever marked by their distinct roles in the heroic tale of the gorilla and the fallen boy.

Let us have compassion for them, and for all of life. And let us remember to walk carefully through this world, for one Spring day you may find yourself falling into the arms of the beast, and catching yourself falling.

In the end we are all, one way or another, the gorilla and the boy.

To Honor Beast and Boy. In light of the array of fantasies people have projected onto the events and individuals involved in the tragic scenario at Cincinnati Zoo, I propose that we all take time to expand our personal understanding of “beasts and fallen boys”. Perhaps the best way to do that is to go to your local zoo to visit with a gorilla or some other large animal that you’d like to befriend, and watch children’s reactions to those great animals. Sit quietly and observe how the “beast” responds to your presence, and to other people — especially children. How do you feel when the animal notices you? How do little boys and girls relate to the “beast?” What might you teach those children, to increase their understanding of and empathy for the great and vanishing animals they are privileged to observe?

After spending real time communing with this zoo animal, imagine the conversation you two might have, if you could talk with each other. Suppose the gorilla could tell you how he feels about his situation? What if he were to ask you to find a bigger, better, more private and peaceful home for him and his family? Consider how you might do that, now that he’s your friend.

One day, the failed and unethical old-world practice of imprisoning intelligent, compassionate, sentient beings for show and profit will be stopped. Eventually the few hundred American gorillas in disguised cages will be moved to large well protected sanctuaries, as are the orphan apes in Africa who survive their family’s poaching. There they may live out their lives in relative comfort, without constant intrusion and insult by hordes of strangers. But for now, so long as these denizens of the wild are held captive in zoos at the pleasure of people, let us show them the personal respect they deserve for their sacrifice. Visit them, beg their forgiveness, offer them your caring friendship. And teach the children to do the same, so that future generations won’t fall into the trap of mistaking beauty for the beast.

Dr. Anthony L Rose is a conservation psychologist, author, and educator whose professional career has ranged from brain research with monkeys to the facilitation of human social collaboration to the promotion of global biosynergy. He has studied and enabled the synergy of humanity and nature on six continents, taught 18 unique courses in psychology and primatology at ten universities, and published over forty scientific articles, books, films, and psychological games. Among his diverse corporate clients have been US Forest Service, Conservation International, US Navy, Kaiser Permanente, American Zoo Association, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Episcopal Diocese of California, International Primatological Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, and The Gorilla Foundation.

The anthology of Dr. Rose’s published works on Global Biosynergy will be available for purchase at the Biosynergy Institute website in 2017.