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Harambe's death highlights Americans' inner struggle with zoos (+video)

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is set to reopen its gorilla exhibit Tuesday with a higher barrier, but the debate over keeping animals in captivity is far from over.

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Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, was fatally shot Saturday, May 28, to protect a 3-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. The gorilla's death has reignited a national conversation about keeping animals in captivity.

Jeff McCurry/Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden/The Cincinatti Enquirer/AP

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The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden’s decision to shoot a 400-pound gorilla after a young boy got into the animal’s enclosure last month sparked a contentious debate, angering some, while others said it pointed to concerns with keeping wild animals in captivity.

Now, the zoo’s gorilla exhibit is set to re-open Tuesday with a reinforced barrier to prevent such accidents, a day after Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said he would not bring charges against the boy’s mother. Some online commenters had criticized the mother, who said her 3-year-old son had “just scampered off,” as children often do, before accidentally falling into the gorilla enclosure.

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The incident has reignited a debate about whether keeping animals in captivity, especially an endangered species such as Harambe, the male western lowland gorilla who became agitated after the boy entered his enclosure on May 28, is the best approach.

“Why are we in a situation in which the choice has to be made between a highly endangered animal and a 4-year-old child?” Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and co-coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., asked The Christian Science Monitor's Henry Gass after Harambe's death. “It’s only because we have a highly endangered animal in zoo setting, otherwise the choice wouldn’t have to be made.”

When it comes to endangered animals, the role of zoos is a complicated, as Mr. Gass reported last week:

On the one hand, they keep animals in captivity. On the other, they promote worldwide conservation efforts and work to preserve critically endangered species, like the western lowland gorilla. The question for some ethicists is whether the resources being spent to house and care for animals would be better spent supporting populations in the wild.

As an alternative to traditional zoos or other efforts that include captivity and killing of animals, some conservationists are focusing on larger, open-air sanctuaries, as Jessica Mendoza reported for The Christian Science Monitor in February.

“We tried to build something more enriched – a happy resting ground for all of [these animals],” Ed Stewart, a conservationist who helped build one such sanctuary in California told the Monitor. “But it’s still a step way down from the wild.”

However, advocates of zoos say they too serve a valuable purpose in promoting conservation and education. Indeed, many zoos invest heavily in conservation efforts, with the Cincinnati Zoo funding gorilla conservation efforts in the Republic of Congo for the past 15 years.

They also provide public with the opportunity to see endangered species up close, encounters that conservationists in support of zoos say go a long way toward supporting conservation efforts. The outpouring of public grief and anger over Harambe's death suggests that effort may be working.

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Mr. Deters, the prosecutor, told the Associated Press that he was surprised by the reaction to the gorilla’s death. The zoo suffered a great loss, he said, “but it's still an animal. It does not equate human life, and they felt that this boy's life was in jeopardy, and they made the painful choice to do what they did."

However American views around the ethics of keeping animals in captivity has been shifting in recent years, most recently seen in the massive public pressure that drove SeaWorld Entertainment to end its orca shows and breeding program.

“At the root of it is an emerging consciousness among consumers/voters,” Wayne Pacelle, executive director of the Humane Society of the United States told the Monitor in February. “They’re demanding more from decisionmakers and wanting companies to do better on animal welfare.”

In the short term, the Cincinnati Zoo is focusing on ensuring that keepers never have to face the choice between the life of a child and a gorilla again. The exhibit’s barrier, which had been inspected several times by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will now be 42 inches high, half a foot taller than it was before. It will also have solid wood beams at the top and bottom plus knotted rope netting at the bottom, zoo spokeswoman Michelle Curley told the Associated Press.

But for conservationists, the discussion has only just begun. 

“We can’t bring Harambe back, and I’m thrilled the boy is safe,” Marc Bekoff, an ethologist and former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder told the Monitor's Gass. “But I was hoping this case would make a difference, and I think it is a case that will make a difference.”