R.I.P. Harambe, 1999-2016: The Binky Lesson Redux

Binky Immortalized

Binky Immortalized

Harambe, of course, was the 17-year old gorilla kept at the Cincinnati Zoo. He was shot and killed by zoo officials after a 3-year old boy climbed through the fence and fell into the moat at the base of Harambe’s cage.

Some folks are blaming the kid’s mother, for allowing her child to climb in to the cage. Some folks are blaming the zoo officials for using bullets instead of tranquilizers. WC doesn’t want to get involved in that debate. Because it misses what WC thinks is the real problem: zoos, and specifically the public display of animals at zoos, is not the way to preserve endangered species. In fact, it’s almost certainly the wrong way to go about the laudable goal of saving endangered species like Western Lowland Gorillas.

There isn’t a zoo cage in the world that can be made foolproof, because fools are just so damned ingenious. Call it the Binky Lesson. Remember Binky, one of the polar bears on exhibit at The Alaska Zoo? An Australian tourist, seeking the perfect photo, climbed through the first of two fences, and Binky pounced. Polar Bears, experts at ambushing seals, are among the fastest animals in the world at the three meter dash. The tourist got away with a mauled leg; Binky got away with a shoe, and carried it around his cage like a prize.1 Jewelry was made to commemorate it.

The lesson from Binky’s adventures is that it’s impossible to create foolproof cage. People, whether it’s dumb adult photographers, drunken teenagers or little 3-year olds, will find a way get around the barriers intended to protect the animals and the people. And then there will be a bad result. The Binky Lesson.

The problem is that zoos want to display animals, and also want to protect animals, especially endangered species. There is a profound disjunction between those two goals. And that disjunction killed Harambe. Zoos will argue that the public display of endangered species arouses public sentiment in support of the animals. Maybe. Caged Passenger Pigeons, on display to the public, didn’t stop the slaughter of that species. Caged elephants, on display to the public, hasn’t slowed the ivory slaughter. Maybe it helps; there’s very little empirical data either way. But there are data for the cost to animals of being caged and on display. And it is very high: human and pet-born diseases, animals killed because they escape or attack the public.

Harambe was bred and born in captivity. The wild population gene pool wasn’t seriously impacted by his killing. But maybe Harambe can serve as a lesson for zoos that insist on blending together their display and preservation functions. It’s a bad idea. Maybe display of endangered species should be limited to older animals, no longer breeding. Or maybe the display and preservation functions need to be severed.

If only to avoid more Harambes.


  1. Equally famously, six weeks later, Binky was involved in another mauling. Drunken local teenagers approached the bear’s enclosure, apparently hoping to swim in its pool, and one 19-year-old was hospitalized with leg lacerations after he was mauled. It’s never been clear exactly how high up teenager’s lacerations extended.