It’s been several years since a child fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo sparking outrage and controversy surrounding the killing of Harambe, a 17 year old western lowland silverback gorilla.
While emotions still run high when Harambe is mentioned – particularly in animal rights circles – I can’t help but go a little deeper in the sadness I feel for the plight of all zoo animals.
Harambe has become a symbol of what some people believe is a broken system. Gorillas, like their chimpanzee brothers and for that matter, all non-domesticated animals imprisoned in unnatural habitats for the gawking pleasure of the paying public need a voice.
Yes, zoos also do good work, rescuing and rehabilitating animals that would otherwise likely die due to human abuse, neglect and destruction of their natural habitats. Or, in some circumstances, they provide medical care for physical abuse from hunters and poachers. In addition, zoos often study various species within their natural surroundings to better understand how we can help them. However I believe, the case of Harambe, who was born and raised inside a zoo environment with no anticipation of or preparation for his release into the wild, was a completely unnecessary situation.
There comes a point in the evolution of a species when one must ask the vital question, how ethical is it for one to keep another held captive for profit? Wonderful organizations such as The Jane Goodall Institute and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International work tirelessly to learn about and help endangered primates in their wild habitats. In addition, there are rescues organizations such as the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida, where chimpanzees rescued from medical research labs and the entertainment industry are able to roam all over an island designed specifically to mimic their own natural wild environment where they are not held captive in cages or enclosures. Even the Non-human Rights Project is currently fighting for the right of “personhood” to be extended to sentient animals like chimps and elephants to legally protect them from profiteers looking to exploit them. In my opinion, this is the way for one species to humanely help another in need.
With my memorial portrait of Harambe, completed in 2017 (a year after his death), I wanted to give a voice to these great captive wild animals. To perhaps raise an awareness of their sentience and emotional maturity. There is one gene, only one gene in our genetic code that separates humans from chimpanzees. Think about that. My portrait is meant to highlight the vulnerability and a human-like quality that Harambe possessed. In the original photo (source: Flickr – by Jason Miklacic, June 2011) Harambe’s eyes convey to me a look of sombre resolution, as though he is innocent of any crime but has been forcibly sentenced to life imprisoned, despite it being the only life he’s ever known. He did not ask for nor create his unfortunate circumstances. With all the physical power he possesses, he remains exposed, defenseless and trapped in a situation not of his making.
This painting has been submitted in the ENDANGERED: Art4Apes Global Juried Fine Art and Fine Art Photography Contest with proceeds benefiting The Center for Great Apes.
Meredith London, Artist
Harambe 36″x48″ acrylic on canvas