Is the Harambe meme harmless social commentary or have we lost sight of the
It is 4 months since a small child fell into the enclosure of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the shooting of the ape by a zoo worker in order to ensure the safety of the three year old boy. Yet the silverback gorilla’s legacy lives on but not for the reason many would have expected at the time. Harambe has immortalised through memes. The Oxford dictionary defines a meme as ‘an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations’. Memes, first termed by Richard Dawkins in ‘The Selfish Gene’ to explain the way cultural information spreads, are analogous to viruses with their speed of propagation. Harambe’s image is now used across the internet, along with the likes of the Grumpy Cat and Willy Wonka, with punch lines reflecting current topics, trends and jokes in pop culture, unrelated to the incident involving Harambe’s death. The initial controversy surrounding animal rights, the role of zoos in conservation and gorilla conservation itself has long faded yet the memes live on. How has Harambe’s life and image been reduced to only memes that signifying nothing so much as their own virality? Is it time the conversation shifted back to these greater issues? Are the Harambe memes just harmless fun or have they gone too far?
When, on the 28th May, Harambe was shot in the bid to protect a young child, the media reaction was that of outrage. A lot of the backlash was targeted at the mother of the young child with questions being raised as to her parenting with some calling for criminal action against her. Cincinnati Zoo also faced a lot of heat as to whether a fatal shot was necessary with the prominent primatologist Jane Goodall interpreting that video footage of the incident as Harambe protecting the child rather than showing aggression. More importantly than pointing blame, many news articles highlighted that western lowland gorillas are classified as ‘critically endangered’ drawing attention to the plight of these charismatic primates in the wild. Others commented on whether gorillas should be in zoos in the first place. Harambe was born and died in captivity. Do captive breeding programmes and the ex-situ conservation of animals make a difference? Supporters of zoos often argue that they are an important educational tool, but do visitors actually leave better informed about wild relatives? If Harambe was not an ambassador for wild gorillas in life, could he be in death?
But where are these discussions now? A look at google trends shows us how far the conversation has changed.
Google trend search over a 12 month period of ‘Harambe’ in the United States
Google trend search over a 12 month period of ‘gorilla conservation’ in the United States
Google trends show that searches for the gorilla’s name have surpassed the amount related to the immediate aftermath of when the news hit that Harambe had been killed. Memes have made Harambe more popular than ever. In contrast, whereas searches for ‘gorilla conservation’ peaked in the 2 weeks after the event the interest soon returned to base levels. While it may be expected that interest may wane somewhat, the disparity between the two searches highlights that few lessons have been learnt from Harambe’s life about the rest of his species.
Commentators of the rise and popularity of the Harambe meme have said that it was originally a parody of subsequent hysteria on social media following the news of Harambe’s death and was a satire of the current media-outrage culture. However, Harambe has become the figurehead for other narratives. Harambe has been nominated for US president and suggested as an alternative name for Tropical Storm Hermine. Cincinnati Zoo say are they are ‘honouring’ Harambe by upping conservation efforts but many say memes are also a way of ‘honouring’ Harambe.The sheer volume of Harambe memes led to Cincinnati Zoo calling for the memes to stop, stating that it ‘makes moving forward difficult.’ Asking for the internet to relent only led to the Cincinnati Zoo twitter page being targeted by trolls so much so that they deleted their account. It is at this point that we can ask if the Harambe meme has gone too far. Mocking and making light of the death could be seen as offensive and tasteless and ignoring that there are real issues to address.
I, like many a millennial, enjoy seeing and sharing certain memes on social media, appreciating their sarcasm and light-heartedness. However, I can’t help but find traces of ignorance in those of Harambe. The media hysteria may have died down but the issues still persist over animal welfare, the value of zoos and the conservation of gorillas. While many may see Harambe memes as a joke lets not forget that gorilla conservation is not. The number of western lowland gorillas has declined by 60% over the last 20 to 25 years, facing threats from the bushmeat trade, habitat loss and disease. While as far as Harambe is concerned the conversation topic moves on daily, reflecting current affairs and news but those using Harambe for this reason should not lose sight of the more pertinent conversations.
Gorilla Fact File video