Although zoo animals feast on provided meals and generally feel comfortable around people, they are still wild creatures at heart. Unlike pets or cattle, they don’t just go with the flow. Their keepers can’t force them to do something they don’t want to, even if their survival depends on it.
In 2013, a group of zoologists put all their resources into helping along the next generation of one primate family. They planned endlessly. They used all the best technology. And in the end, the delivery still sprung one big surprise that they never saw coming.
Dana the orangutan was under a lot of pressure. It’s not like she had a job or mortgage to pay off, but the future of her entire species was at stake, and their chances weren’t looking too great.
Of course, Dana herself didn’t have to worry. She and a handful of other orangutans lived in England’s Jersey Zoo. They had everything they needed there, thanks to the inspiring vision of one man.
Naturalist Gerald Durrell founded the conservation center in 1959. Though he designed it to house well over one hundred species, he always had a soft spot for orangutans. It was clear how much was at stake.
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Sumatran orangutans like Dana once thrived, covering a large region of the Indonesian islands. Since the dawn of globalization, however, their fortunes had turned considerably. Some feared it was already too late to save them by 2013.
Widespread destruction of their natural rain forest habitat, along with poaching operations, caused the orangutan population to plummet to just 7,500 worldwide. Although there are plenty of critically endangered species out there, this one is particularly troubling.
Twitter / Biodiversity is Us
Orangutans are one of the closest genetic relatives to human beings, sharing over 97% of the same DNA. That means these are intelligent, emotional creatures that are in danger. Dana herself nearly died once before.
Gordon Hunt, the Head Ape Keeper at the Jersey Zoo, remembered the incident like it was yesterday. Back in 2009, one of his most exciting days on the job suddenly morphed into a total nightmare.
Dana was pregnant, which sent the Jersey Zoo staff into hysterics. No baby orangutans had been born there in years. This potentially marked a turning point in the primates’ trajectory — until everything went totally off the rails.
As Dana went into labor, the zoo employees were horrified to see that it was a stillbirth. What made the situation even worse was that the orangutan was grappling with internal hemorrhaging. They rushed to save her.
Severe as the trauma was, Jersey Zoo managed to save Dana’s life. The resulting damage unfortunately blocked her fallopian tubes. Gordon and his team doubted that she would ever be able to produce offspring.
But they knew they had to try. The zookeepers rang Dr. Neil MacLachlan, a renowned obstetrician from Jersey’s General Hospital. He’d treated countless patients across his storied career, but Gordon asked if he’d ever operated on an orangutan before.
Jersey Evening Post
As a matter of fact, Dr. MacLachlan figured that he could perform surgery on Dana. Her internal organs were nearly identical to those of a human, meaning that the procedure would involve all the same steps. They could only hope it reversed Dana’s infertility.
The New Yorker
The gamble eventually paid off. By early 2013, Dana mated and began showing signs of pregnancy, proving that Dr. MacLachlan’s operation was a success. Of course, this didn’t guarantee that this pregnancy wouldn’t end like the last.
The Jersey Zoo staff kept a close eye on the orangutan in those following months. Meticulous medical tests and nonstop observation suggested that the baby was coming along just fine. All they could do was wait.
In the early hours of one November morning, a series of phone calls awoke the Jersey Zoo staff. Dana was going into labor. Despite the chill outside, they hurriedly got dressed to witness the historic event.
In addition to fighting off extinction, the zookeepers had a chance to achieve a huge milestone. No orangutan birth was ever recorded before, so they planned to covertly film the entire delivery, Jane Goodall-style.
Women and Hollywood
It was fortunate Gordon’s team got the camera in place, because the entire thing happened remarkably fast. They gasped as the baby primate simply popped out, and Dana attentively cleaned him off. However, she did something unexpected next.
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Fund
The mama orangutan turned directly toward the zookeepers. They froze. Was she threatened that they’d all watched such a vulnerable moment? They barely held their nerve as Dana rushed over toward the glass barrier to confront them.
But Gordon soon realized Dana wasn’t angry at all. She was overjoyed and wanted to show her newborn son to her friends! They named him KeaJaiban, which translated to “miracle” in Indonesian.
KeaJaiban’s birth alone wouldn’t bring orangutans back from the brink, but he represented an important step in the right direction. The zookeepers’ heroics made it all possible — though not every risk they’ve taken has paid off.
ANU College of Asia and the Pacific
Back in 1999, a male silverback gorilla was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. A naming contest was held, and, inspired by a song by Rita Marley, the winner dubbed the newborn ape “Harambe.”
Harambe would go on to spend the next 15 years in Brownsville until zookeepers felt it was time to introduce him to a new social group. And so, on September 18, 2014, Harambe was transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
The gorilla quickly took to his new environment, and for two years, he lived unbothered in the zoo’s Gorilla World habitat. Then, on May 28, 2016, the unthinkable happened.
While visiting the gorilla enclosure, a three-year-old boy decided he wanted a closer look at the great apes. But after scaling the outer fence, the child lost his footing and fell fifteen feet into a shallow moat below.
Chaos broke out as the crowd scrambled to save the child, with zookeepers quickly working to corral the three gorillas in the habitat. Two of the apes were herded into their cages, but the third, the ever-curious Harambe, decided to investigate.
For the next ten minutes, onlookers watched in horror as the 400-pound silverback dragged the boy through the water. Harambe became increasingly agitated as the cries of the frenzied crowd grew louder, and with each passing moment, the boy’s fate only seemed to grow more uncertain.
Fearing for the child’s safety, the zoo had no choice but to kill the gorilla, firing a single shot to put the great ape down. But although the boy came away from the incident without major injury, the killing of Harambe would soon make national headlines.
Following the release of a video of the incident, animal-rights activists came out in full force to condemn the zoos decision to kill Harambe. Criticism was also directed at the boy’s parents, whose negligence they claimed was the direct cause of the ape’s death.
The Denver Post
But the zoo was quick to defend the actions of its keepers, and many conservationists came out in support of the decision. Even renown primatologists Jane Goodall agreed that, given the circumstances, putting Harambe down was the only option.
The Morning Journal
“It was awful for the child, the parents, Harambe, the zoo, the keepers and the public,” wrote Goodall. “But when people come into contact with wild animals, life and death decisions sometimes have to be made.” But this was not the end of the great ape’s story.
Since his death, Harambe has become somewhat of a folk hero in the realm of popular culture. Dozens of candlelight vigils have been held in honor of the fallen ape, and online, Harambe has become a staple of internet meme culture. As his legacy took the spotlight, people began questioning the facts.
See, Harambe’s death remains controversial, particularly due to a widely circulated claim that the boy was actually in no real danger at all. Instead of seeking to harm the child, some argue that Harambe was actually trying to protect him.
This belief gained traction over the years, though just recently, former zookeeper Amanda O’Donoughue offered a different perspective on Harambe’s killing. And for those that stand in staunch opposition of the zoo’s actions, her words just might change your mind.
Amanda O’Donoughue / Facebook
“I have watched this video over again, and with Harambe’s posturing, and tight lips, it’s pretty much the stuff of any keeper’s nightmares,” O’Donoughue explained in a post on Facebook. “Gorillas are kind, curious, and sometimes silly, but they are also very large, very strong animals.”
And because of this immense strength, the child was in an incredible amount of danger regardless of Harambe’s desire to protect him. Though according to O’Donoughue, the boy’s safety was likely the last thing on the ape’s mind.
“I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true,” wrote O’Donoughue. “Harambe the Gorilla reaches for the boy’s hands and arms, but only to position the child better for his own displaying purposes.”
O’Donoughue continued: “Males do very elaborate displays when highly agitated, slamming and dragging things about… to make as much noise as possible. Not in an effort to hurt anyone or anything (usually) but just to intimidate. It was clear to me that he was reacting to the screams coming from the gathering crowd.”
But even so, many questioned the need for lethal force, especially when the zoo had the ability to sedate Harambe from a distance. However, O’Donoughue explained that doing so could’ve actually made the situation even more deadly.
According to O’Donoughue, the tranquilizer would’ve taken too long to immobilize Harambe and stood the chance of aggravating him even more. And even if he had been sedated, Harambe likely would’ve drowned in the moat and very easily could’ve crushed the boy after falling unconscious.
For now, the debate over Harambe’s death rages on, but even still, O’Donoughue believes that this kind of open discourse will allow us to prevent future killings of innocent animals.
“As educators and conservators of endangered species,” O’Donoughue said, “all we can do is shine a light on the beauty and majesty of these animals in hopes to spark a love and a need to keep them from vanishing from our planet.”
Unfortunately, freak accidents still happen, and it’s usually an animal that winds up paying the price. Even in a place like England’s Dudley Zoo, decades worth of training and experience couldn’t prevent a heartbreaking tragedy from befalling one of its residents.
On any given day at the Dudley Zoo, visitors can walk along scenic wooded paths while lemurs hop freely all around them; or, they can check out the walrus enclosure and get up close and personal with the tusked mammals. But in 2018, there was one particular animal who drew much of the guests’ attention.
It was an eight-year-old snow leopard named Margaash. The zoo was fortunate to have such a majestic and rare animal living there, and spectators seemed to always spend the most time admiring him.
Usually, it was kids that spent a long time staring into the snow leopard enclosure. And while the Dudley Zoo had a few leopards roaming the habitat, it was always Margaash that enjoyed the most attention.
While Margaash’s snow leopard buddies frequently laid low during most of the day, you better believe Margaash was ready to put on a show at a moment’s notice. His playful demeanor made him one of the zoo workers’ favorite animals.
Although Margaash had a friendly personality, he was a wild animal; workers always had to be on their guards when he was near. Employees had specific guidelines on handling every animal, but one evening, during a closing walkthrough, everything fell apart.
One employee frantically motioned for the others to gather around the snow leopard enclosure. Someone left the door wide open, and Margaash was missing. Workers looked around in a panic, unsure of where or when the snow leopard would appear.
They needed to find the animal quickly. Dudley Castle was a popular place, and not an ideal spot for a leopard to be on the prowl. It would quickly turn into a nightmare scenario if Margaash put his hunting skills to the test there.
Employees quickly contacted zoo security, who arrived stocked with tranquilizer guns and floodlights. No one was going anywhere until Margaash was located — and that was if he didn’t find them first!
After hours of careful searching, one of the workers miraculously spotted Margaash on the edge of the woodline, about to bound off the premises and into the wooded land separating the zoo from unprotected people. Workers had to make a move.
The zoo was well-stocked with tranquilizer darts for situations exactly like this one. It was too dangerous to trap the animal while it was worked up and nervous. They needed to sedate Margaash for everyone’s safety.
But strangely, it was the zoo’s vet who advised against the tranquilizer and suggested using an actual bullet instead. Night was quickly falling, and they couldn’t risk Margaash escaping into the woodlands. Zoo security heeded that advice. A single shot rang out.
Margaash’s death infuriated animal rights groups. Was there really no other option? Plenty of people were already on the fence about the ethical issues of keeping animals locked in cages, but Margaash’s death gave them a reason to call for change.
See, not only was Margaash an innocent animal who simply wandered out of his enclosure due to a zoo worker’s error, but researchers estimate only about 5,000 snow leopards even exist in the wild. With Margaash’s death, there was one less.
Julie Woodyer, the campaign director for a zoo inspection group called Zoocheck, was sickened by what happened. Snow leopards were shy animals, and since it was nighttime when Margaash escaped, streets wouldn’t have been flooded with people. She saw no reason why they used bullets.
However, Dudley Zoo director Derek Grove defended the zoo’s decision to kill the animal. Although incredibly saddened by the loss, he had the safety of innocent people in mind, and if Margaash injured anyone, he would’ve felt personally responsible.
Margaash will always remain a Dudley Zoo favorite, but nothing can bring the beautiful cat back. Even though zoo officials claim killing Margaash was their only recourse, you hope the zoo enacts stricter policies so a tragedy like this one never happens again.
Of course, it’s not often that a wild or escaped animal wanders into our personal space; they typically want to avoid us at all costs. But, on the rare occasion that they do, it can lead to some serious trouble.
Bears, for example, aren’t exactly the kind of animal you’d consider helpless. Still, they’re curious, and that can sometimes leave them between a rock and a hard place. This was no more evident than the case of one bear in Alligator Point on St. James Island in Florida…
The 375-pound black bear had been sniffing around the neighborhood when he wandered into a home. Wildlife conservation officers were called to sedate him and safely relocate him to the wild, but moments after he was shot with a tranquilizer, things started to go wrong.
It may sound harsh to shoot an animal, even by strictly non-lethal means, but the wildlife officers had no choice. As much as the bear wanted nothing more than to mind his own business, he would have encountered a human soon enough.
Even though using a tranquilizer was the humane option to ensure the bear and area residents stayed safe, there were no guarantees the process would go the way they planned it…
Of course, that plan quickly backfired. Instead of the dart sedating him, it immediately sent the bear into a panic. The wildlife officers readied themselves for the worst, but they didn’t realize just how bad things were about to get.
The large bear, who must have been terrified by the officers chasing him, made a beeline toward the nearby water—and he began swimming out as far as he could. Unfortunately, that was when the sedative started to kick in.
The drowsy bear clearly couldn’t keep himself afloat—and he began to drown! Adam Warwick, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, knew that he had to act quickly.
Without hesitating, the fearless and determined Adam dove into the water and swam toward the huge bear. Most people couldn’t imagine doing something quite so brave, but to him, it made perfect sense… at least in the moment.
“It was a spur of the moment decision. I had a lot of adrenaline pumping when I saw the bear in the water,” Adam later said of the experience. Thank goodness for that adrenaline, otherwise he would have known how dangerous it truly was. What if the bear attacked him?
Adam didn’t have time to think twice: he grabbed the enormous bear with both hands and wrapped his arms around his neck. Then he started to kick toward shallow water where the other wildlife officers were waiting…
The bear wasn’t entirely asleep, and he was understandably distressed. He frantically tried to climb on top of Adam in an effort to stay afloat, but he was losing the ability to move his legs.
Despite his stressful—and incredibly risky—mission, Adam stayed as calm as he could as he approached more shallow water. He grabbed the bear by the scruff of his neck and carefully led him toward the rescue boat.
Thankfully, Adam was able to pull the powerful predator roughly 25 yards toward dry land. Moving the bear might’ve seemed (relatively) easy in the water, but it was a different story on the shore!
The unusual pair finally made it to the rest of the rescue team, in one piece. Though the bear was sedated, he could have lunged at Adam or swiped at him with his claws at any moment…
Incredibly, Adam suffered only one scratch during the entire ordeal. Other than that, he was perfectly fine! Who would have known that he’d come out of this risky mission relatively unscathed?
Adam’s colleagues stepped in to help the exhausted man and beast collect their bearings. It was going to take a lot of people—and a lot of bravery along the way, much like anyone in this type of situation…
The team drove a large tractor toward the water’s edge to transport the groggy bear back to his home in Osceola National Forest. There was no way they would’ve been able to carry a 375-pound animal without a little help!
Thankfully, the bear didn’t suffer any injuries after his wild jaunt in the water. It was safe to say that he probably wouldn’t go anywhere near water for a while following this experience.
Most importantly, this massive bear was safe and back in a habitat that suited him best. Hopefully by now he’s learned to avoid wandering into residential neighborhoods!