Primate Rescue Center

Local Primate Experts Weigh In on Controversy Surrounding Gorilla Death

Erika Fleury June 09, 2016

The Primate Rescue Center staff understand the grief felt following the killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo and remain dedicated to safety in their own facility.

Eileen Dunnington, manager of the sanctuary located in Jessamine County, said the primate rescue recently held its annual member event on May 21 — just one week before the western lowland gorilla named Harambe was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. Unlike the zoo, the member event is the one day a year that adults and children from the public are allowed on sanctuary’s property. “For that event, there’s a lot of preparation work to build or to set up temporary barriers … in order to keep the public safe when they do come down here,” she said.

Sanctuary Manager Eileen Dunnington and a chimpanzee at the PRC. Image courtesy Mike Moore / Jessamine Journal

Dunnington said the event is only open to members — or those who donate to the rescue center and it’s the only time children under 18 are ever allowed on the property. In addition to setting up barriers for the event, volunteers are stationed all around to make sure no one leans over or tries to climb over the barriers. “Especially since we don’t have large groups (often), we are very cautious when any groups are down here, making sure that groups stick together or areas are monitored in a way that keeps everyone safe,” she said.

Because the rescue center is home to dangerous animals, Dunnington said they are limited for liability reasons. The rescue center occasionally hosts small, “strictly educational” tours of university students and they must donate to be able to visit. While the rescue center doesn’t deal with the public often, ensuring the safety of the workers — and the animals — is a daily reality. “Safety is our number one priority,” she said. “Not only for staff and any volunteers, interns and any visitors that might be on our property, but also for our animals. It’s sort of an all-encompassing idea, that you can only keep the people safe if you’re also keeping the animals safe.” Dunnington explained that central to the rescue center’s safety policy is the fact that it is a no-contact facility. “So, there is never an instance where an individual is inside an enclosure with any of our animals — at all, ever,” she said.

The rescue center is armed with protocols, procedures, training and mock drills, and equipment to prepare staff to handle any situation.
However, she explained, each safety situation is unique, as was seen at the Cincinnati Zoo, when a three-year-old child fell into a gorilla enclosure and the gorilla was shot and killed. “There are certainly numerous responses to safety concerns, but then also primates in general are unpredictable,” she said. So, each safety situation — whether it’s an escape or if they have something they’re not supposed to have — each situation is completely different. And you can only really prepare for your basic responses and then the details have to be sort of figured out on the fly.”

Dunnington said if an animal gets out for example, there’s no way to plan for what the animal will do — and the same animal could behave differently on a different day. “You don’t know where they’re going to go, how they’re going to behave — if they’re going to be scared, if they’re going to be curious, if they’re going to be aggressive. It just all sort of depends on that situation on that day at that time,” she said.

Following the incident May 28 and a loud public reaction on social media, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph T. Deters announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the child’s guardians.“None of the witnesses interviewed described the mother as anything but attentive to her children. Our information is that the mother turned away for a few seconds to attend to another one of her young children and that is when the 3-year-old was able to climb into the gorilla enclosure. Any parent who is honest with himself or herself would have to understand how this could happen to even the most attentive parent,” Deters said in a news release June 6. “I am very sorry about the loss of this gorilla but nothing about this situation rises to the level of a criminal charge.”

The zoo has stated that the enclosure has long passed inspections by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but replaced the barrier the child climbed over with one that is 42 inches high. The zoo reopened the gorilla exhibit this week.

Transylvania University philosophy Professor Jack Furlong specializes in animal ethics. He said the Dangerous Animal Response Team that shot Harambe simply made a judgement call. The question of where the blame lies is more complex, but may go back to the agencies regulating the zoo and the zoo itself, which has a responsibility to keep both the animals and the humans safe.

Because they care for primates and monkeys at the rescue center for the rest of their lives, Dunnington said she and her staff are familiar with the feelings of loss. “We certainly would want to express our condolences to the caretakers and the staff at the Cincinnati Zoo, as well as to Harambe’s troupe, who I’m sure also are grieving for his loss,” she said.

Among the many people commenting on the incident in Cincinnati was legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, who wrote an email to zoo Director Thane Maynard. Goodall asked Maynard about the grieving of the 17-year-old gorilla’s troupe.

Dunnington said, though the rescue center doesn’t work with gorillas, she is familiar with the way chimpanzee social groups react to deaths. While humans can’t interpret what they’re thinking, but the animals will appear more solemn and less energetic. “They certainly respond in a different way than if they come across (another) just sleeping. They definitely know the difference and react differently.”

Harambe’s family group of eight are among the 10 critically endangered western lowland gorillas at the Cincinnati Zoo, according to a zoo news release.

At the rescue center, staff gives their animals time to grieve by putting the deceased animal where the others can see them, not in the same enclosure, and give them time alone with the body. Dunnington said in the wild the animals have been observed paying their respects by sitting with the body of a deceased troupe mate, or even touching or hitting the body. She said they it was something they saw with a recent death of a rescue center resident chimpanzee. “They definitely responded to that,” she said. “And each came over and sat with her and tried to touch her. They’re just as emotional as we are and they also live in family-like groups. Our 11 chimps have been together almost 20 years, so it’s certainly noticed when one of their members is missing or is not around any more.”

- Jessamine Journal

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