Humans and Gorillas:  The Harambe Tragedy. 


Harambe, a 17-year-old male Western lowland gorilla (an endangered species with only about 175,000 left in the world), was shot to death on May 28 when a 3 year old boy fell 12 feet (seemingly without injury as he was seen then splashing in the water) into the moat surrounding the Gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, after he refused to relinquish the boy (protecting him? – he seemed to hold his hand and cradle him in his arms) when asked by his keepers.

Everyone wants to know what went through the mind of the gorilla.  Alas, we cannot know.  Needless to say, this is not something that Harambe would have faced before.  He had no way of knowing what was the right thing to do, from a gorilla point of view (how often do gorillas meet children who fall into their space?), or from a human point of view even though he had been born and raised among humans.  A powerful male, weighing over four hundred pounds, capable of crushing a coconut with his hands, he could easily have killed the boy.  That he was with him for ten minutes (long ones from the point of view of the child, the understandably hysterical parents, and the frightened onlookers), and did not kill him speaks for some sense he must have had about not harming the boy.  On the other hand, when you look at the full video (3-4 minutes long) you can see him dragging the boy through the water by his leg with no sense that he could be hurting him (he may have been disoriented by the shouting of the crowd above him, or he may have been trying to protect the boy from that very danger).

Professor Gisela Kaplan, from the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England in Australia said, and I agree, that it was probable the gorilla had come to help the boy, not harm him, as the gorilla would realize the boy posed no threat.  The gorilla may have thought, she suggests, that the boy was in danger from the screaming crowd above both of them.  Gorillas will drag their young away from danger, and this is precisely what Harambe did.

While we can agree that it is almost impossible to know what was transpiring in the gorilla’s mind, the question I have is:  what is going through the minds of people who insist on keeping other sentient creatures in zoos so that we can stare at them?  What makes them think this is educational, or a noble enterprise, or keeping the animal safe?  It is high time that zoos, ALL zoos, were abolished:  all we learn from them is how to inflict harm on other animals.  They serve no purpose to the animal other than to so distort his or her nature that they are unrecognizable.  No wonder that some elephants are beginning to kill their “keepers” perhaps because enough is enough.  If I were an elephant I would be thinking:  What on earth are they thinking keeping me a prisoner here?  Harambe the gorilla did not, in fact, harm the boy who was released from the hospital within hours, when he easily could have done so.  This suggests to me that he “knew” in some deep sense, that the boy was worthy of life.  If only we could feel the same about gorillas.

I cannot see how shooting the gorilla was the right thing to do.  Watching the video, I was surprised that the onlookers did not form a chain and bring several people down to the enclosure to rescue the boy.  It is possible that Harambe would have, as in the famous case of Binti Jua in Chicago in 1996, hand him over to a human. (But of course it is also possible he would have perceived the adults as endangering the child whose job it was to save!).   But surely something else could have been tried rather than shooting the gorilla:  imagine if they had only wounded him and he took out his rage on the child!

What if, what if, what if.  Yes, all speculative, granted.  But what is not speculative is that this accident would never have happened had gorillas not been put into zoos, where they definitively do not belong, in the first place.  Best of all would be that there were no zoos to put any animal into.  They are barbaric reminders of our past sense of human entitlement.  Enough is enough for our own sake and the sake of other animals.






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Beating a Rabbit to Death in Denmark to Make a Point about Not Killing Animals?

26open_allan-master675    Asger Juhl, the host of a live radio show in Denmark, took an adorable floppy-eared baby rabbit (photo above) out of a box, petted the nine-week old with what appeared to be tenderness (audio was made available on the website) then clubbed the rabbit to death with a bicycle pump.  You can hear the rabbit scream online as the host not only beat him but strangled him as well.  Thank you Denmark.  First Marius the two-year old giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo, now the rabbit. The zoo explained how to kill the rabbit (with a bicycle pump?).  All very humane, said the radio station.  (By the way, Isn’t it time that the word “humane” and the word “slaughter” were not found in the same sentence?)

 The Danish author Erling Jepsen said he thought it was fine.  He himself had killed over a thousand rabbits, and pontificated:  “Animals are there for us, we are not there for animals.”  I guess God told him that.

The radio show said it was trying to make a point about the hypocrisy of people who eat meat yet object to the idea of visible slaughter.  But that is a bit like telling people that you want them to really understand how wrong it is to kill people, so you turn to your co-host and murder her on the spot.  “See how bad that makes you feel?”

Surely the point could have been made on the radio without killing an actual living being.  You don’t have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to find it deplorable, vicious and unnecessary, to force your argument with a painful scene that nobody wants to see.  Yes, it is probably true that if slaughterhouses were made of glass, the world would be vegetarian.  And yes, we need to think about the reality of a slaughterhouse, but in order to do that, we do not necessarily need to visit one.  I know that when I wrote my book The Face on Your Plate, about going vegan, it would have been brave, perhaps, of me to visit one, but I could not bring myself to do so.

I know that I would have been enraged had I been on the show and forced to watch a rabbit killed in front of me.  Small wonder that the person who was arguing against eating meat found herself horrified and tried to stop the host from his act of murder.  In vain.  My sympathies are entirely with her and the radio host disgusts me.  It is like making art by killing animals live onstage.  Whatever you call it, It is still ugly.

I used to think of Denmark as the most civilized country in Europe.  Maybe I need to rethink that.

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Lanzmann on Human and Animal Suffering

How is it possible to be so sensitive to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust and indifferent to animal suffering?  This is the question that kept coming up for me when I read Claude Lanzmann’s memoir:  The Patagonian Hare.  I had seen his film Shoah, all 9 hours of it, and was impressed.  Here was someone who knew about pain and the taking of life for no reason.  I liked the way he titled his book, after seeing a solitary hare when he was in Patagonia and realizing how this wild animal stood for freedom from constraint.  It seemed to me he was poised to understand in some depth what it mean to deprive an animal, any animal of his or her cherished freedom.  So I was deeply disappointed when right at the beginning of his book he goes out of his way to say butchers “practice the most noble of professions and are the least barbarous of men.”  Why, I wondered, would he think this of people who kill animals for a living?

Then, a bit later in the book, when he describes his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, he writes, “I would not have missed seeing him executing rabbits [!], wringing the necks of chickens, beheading ducks with an axe on a block of wood, for anything in the world.”  This is more than a bit creepy; most children who have witnessed the merciless killing of a helpless rabbit, duck, or chicken, are horrified, and often cannot get the ugly image out of their mind.  I know because when I was 9 a neighbor tricked me into watching him laughingly behead a chicken, an image I still find terrifying to remember.   

A few pages on Lanzmann recalls a beloved teacher, Ferdinand Alquie, and assures us that “to the end of my days I will remember the way in which, during one of his lessons on sexual perversion, opening and closing his incredibly expressive fingers, he married the gesture of strangling a pigeon with the word jouir. [to have an orgasm], which he rolled around his tongue, drawing out the sound.”  He was describing a woman who could only reach orgasm by strangling a dove.  “I adored him,” he assures us, “we all did.” 

How French, a small blind spot, you might object.  But then how come he and his lover, Simone de Beauvoir (who certainly understood something of how women have been made to suffer over the ages), made a point of visiting Franco’s Spain where Lanzmann “with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, embraced her passion for bullfighting and corridas?”  A book he loved deeply was written by a French friend, called, ominously, The Ears and the Tail, praising the virtues of bullfighting.

All of this raises a very troubling question:  How come it is so easy to see no connection whatsoever between human pain and suffering and animal pain and suffering?  Is the us/them distinction so deeply etched into our species DNA that it requires a mighty effort to free ourselves from its dark spell?  Lanzmann spent 9 hours lamenting the fact that the Nazis were able to see Jews as completely distinct from other Germans, as sub-human.  This is what enabled them to kill them without mercy, without, evidently, thinking they were killing people at all, people who clung to their lives as much as any other person.  Is this not true for all animals we kill?  They too want to live.  They too have inner lives, family, friendships, thoughts, feelings.  They suffer as much, if not more, than we do.  How come this thought never once occurred to Claude Lanzmann, and how come, too, I have not seen a single review (almost all of them ecstatic in their praise of this dubious book) raise this issue?  It is hardly irrelevant to his theme.   

And, to close, let me point out that it is not just animals who escape Claude Lanzmann’s vaunted compassion.  A member of our own species is the completely baffling, and, yes, horrifying, object of his contempt merely for being born with disabilities.  He is describing visiting a Polish farmer near Treblinka and is repelled by the smell of sour milk and cabbage in the home, “but what was most frightening was the monster, his son, paralysed, mentally handicapped, wracked by uncontrollable spasms in his chair, head always turned to one side, tongue hanging out.”  I had to read this several times to make sure I had not missed something.  What on earth does Lanzmann believe this poor child had done to make the visiting Frenchman describe him with such heartless contempt?  How did not some editor point out that in the 21st century, civilized people do not call a blameless person with disabilities “a monster?”  The passage is, excuse the expression, simply monstrous and should never have been written.  It makes me believe that Lanzmann is not just blind to animal suffering, but that of other humans he, for whatever reason, does not believe are part of the human species.  Where did we see this before? 

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Ringling Brothers and Elephants

Today I published an opinion piece about this in the New York Daily News.  It has generated a lot of comment.  I would like to know  your opinion.  Here is the link:

People care about elephants, with good reason.  I plead for them to care just as much for the animals whose eggs we take, whose milk we drink, whose babies we kill, whose flesh we eat.  I see that day approaching faster than anyone could have imagine just ten years ago.

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Are Dogs Uniquely Friendly?


I have always felt that dogs are our superior when it comes to lots of things, but the most important one is that they are more friendly, as a species, than humans are, as a species.

I see evidence of this on a daily basis by simply watching dogs wag their tales as they notice or approach a strange dog (they don’t even have the concept of “stranger.”).

The other day we were  up in the mountains above Granada, skiing (well, my wife and 13 year old boy were skiing – my days of skiing are over).  We rented an apartment in the hills above a small convenience store.  The woman who runs it has a dog, Flip.  He is an English Spaniel.  He was delighted to see us, to see other dogs, to see his person.  Normal. 

The next day we walked down the hill from where we were staying in the mountains, almost a mile downhill to where people were skiing and I saw a dog who looked a lot like Flip wandering about greeting the skiers in the snow.  Later I asked.  Yep, it was him.  The next day I saw him sitting with a man who looked homeless (there are very few in Spain, so I think he was just poor and had most of his belongings with him).  Flip was looking up at him with adoration.  “Your dog,” I asked?  “No, just likes hanging out with me.”

I asked the woman what was up with him.  How come he was down in the valley during the day and at home in the evening?  “That is what he does.  He loves to be with people all day, but comes home at night.”

  A true free spirit.  He goes where he wants, when he wants, but knows where he belongs.  All day he spends time greeting his friends.  Hyperfriendly, that is what Flip is.  And Flip is not alone.  There are other dogs like him.  So let me ask you:  When was the last time you met a person like this?

I rest my case.

Nor is it a trivial case.  For if humans could be more like dogs, we would live in a much warmer, more friendly, more gentle world.  I for one would like that. 

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Pigeons and US

doveI told Nancy Miller, the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury America

“I want to write a book about pigeons.” 

“Why,” she asked?

“Because I want to know what they think of us.”

“And do you?”


“Well, then, it seems to me we don’t have a book.”

And being the lovely woman she is, Nancy added:

“Get back to me if you ever figure it out.”

I was reminded of what Steve Ross, my editor for my book Dogs Never Lie About Love, said to me when I told him I was going to write something in there about what dogs dreamed about: 

“Jeff, we could have a major best-seller if you can crack that.”

I couldn’t.

Back to pigeons: 

I am sure I am not alone when I wonder how they live so close to us, and yet are so unknown by us.  We insult them:  “Rats of the sky” we call them.  (Mind you, why should “rat” be an insult in any event?  I have known, and befriended, many a domestic rat, and so have my children.) 

The pigeon called the Passenger Pigeon (not because he was a passenger, or carried anything, but because he was just “passing” by, from the French) is gone.  In the 19th century in America, there were so many of these wonderful birds, that once a single flock was observed that spread a mile wide, and went on for 300 miles: It contained 3.5 billion birds in it!   Possibly this was the largest collection of animals ever seen.  Yet humans managed to kill every one of them.  How?  Mostly by hunting them for “fun.”  It was easy to kill the birds once they were nesting, as the parents refused to abandon nests with young in them. So for example, at a nesting site in Michigan, 50,000 birds were killed each day for five months.  So successful was this slaughter, that eventually only a single female passenger pigeon, Martha, was left, sad and alone, in the Cincinnati zoo, where she died in 1914.  Aldo Leopold said after this: “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” 

We know of “crimes against humanity.”   One day, I am sure, there will be an International Criminal Court that will try crimes against the natural world and its inhabitants, including pigeons.

But what about my original question?  Pigeons are not domesticated. Even if they live in cities or right on top of our houses they maintain a discreet distance from us, yet they are always near.  Is it because the living is easy?  Could they just like our company?  What could we do to make them our friends, beyond feeding them?  What are we to them?  I suspect they are waiting for us to wake up.  What do you think is in their minds?  Please don’t say “nothing” because that is impossible.  If cats and dogs think about us, why not pigeons?  If they seem far more mysterious or harder to read, it could be only that we have never tried.  I am in Malaga, Spain, right now, with my family, and we see pigeons every day, and I get the feeling they know I am on to them. If I ever crack the code, I will give Nancy Miller a call, and you will be able to read all about it.

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I Would Rather Have Been Born an Orca



No kidding.  I really would.  What sets me off can be just about any account of an atrocity, because my first thought is:  no orca ever does this.  The latest was reading about the “desaparecidos” in Argentina during the years of the junta, the brutal dictatorship that “disappeared,” i.e., murdered some 30,000 people from 1976 until 1983.  In my latest book I wrote about the fact that humans had killed some 200,000,000 of our own kind during the 20th century alone, and during that same time, orcas had killed exactly zero of their kind.  Reading in my favorite new site, “The Dodo” about the female orca who is 103 years old, made me think about her life.  She is surrounded by her children and grandchildren.  She travels constantly, sometimes 100 miles in a single day.  She eats what she has been taught to eat, but other than that, causes no harm to any other living being.  Most definitely not to other orcas. 


Is it possible to really think about the life of another creature?  It is hard, and even novelists have a tough time convincing us what living as a chimp, a wolf, an elephant, or a whale would be like (let alone an animal even more remote from us, such as a parrot).  Still, it is something that occurs to me a lot recently, as I open my newspaper and read about Syria, and the Ukraine, and as I ponder the history of the 20th century.  What is it that appeals to me most?  I guess the idea of causing little if any suffering to another being.  True, I try to do that as a human, but I find myself part of a species where this is hardly an ideal.   My own president sees no problem in hunting down other Americans with a drone because somebody has convinced him they are worth killing and need not stand trial.  My heroes, people like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, are rare at any time in history.  And many people would be happy to see them dead, just as the Germans wanted men like Primo Levi (another hero of mine) dead. 


There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths (unless we cage them in an overgrown bathtub for years.  They go about their gentle lives without leaving enormous suffering behind them.  They never seek us out to harm us, even though you might expect they would, since we kill approximately 1400 of them every year.  No orca has ever killed a human in the wild.  Why not?  We will probably never know.  Maybe simply because they don’t kill for fun or even for revenge.  They only kill to eat. 


Had I been born an orca, what kind of consciousness would I have?  Impossible to say.  But I suspect I would know that in comparison to that other apex predator, the one on land, humans, I was better off.  My life was simple, but the joys I had on a daily basis were enormous and I suspect they were, by and large, greater than the joys of humans.  So if somebody offered me a choice, I would choose to be an orca.  I wonder how many people think they would have been better off had they been born a different animal?

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