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Is It Morally Justifiable to Kill an Endangered Animal if a Human Life Is at Risk?

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 (U.S. Department of State IIP Photo Archive)

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was written by Ashley Baysinger, Thor Smith and Jasmine Parker, students in Jim Speer’s “Introduction to Environmental Science” class at Indiana State University.

Featured Media Resource
VIDEO: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Endangered Species Act: 40 Years at the Forefront of Wildlife Conservation
Learn about the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and various species it has protected.

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Is it morally justifiable to kill an endangered animal if a human life is at risk? #DoNowULife

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On May 28, 2016, a toddler fell into the exhibit of a Western Lowland gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo. The gorilla grabbed the child and dragged him. A zoo employee shot the gorilla because he believed that Harambe would have injured or killed the child. This sparked a heated debate over whether killing this gorilla was the ethical thing to do. The Western Lowland gorilla is considered critically endangered due to a variety of factors, including deforestation and infertility. Harambe’s death is not the first time that we have had to question the morality of killing an endangered animal in order to protect a human. Wolves, African painted dogs, Siberian tigers, and polar bears are among some of the endangered animals that have been killed since 1987 in self-defense situations in zoos or in the wild. Whose life has a higher value, the overpopulated human or the animal at risk of extinction?


Upon signing the Endangered Species Act, Richard Nixon stated, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists, and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.” The Endangered Species Act protects endangered species and their ecosystems through federal law. A species is considered endangered when is it dangerously close to extinction. The Western Lowland Gorilla, which is considered critically endangered, has a population of about 100,000 individuals. The population has dropped by 60 percent in the past 20-25 years. Despite the dwindling population of the gorillas, they are still considered dangerous animals to humans. Where do we draw the line when it comes to a life or death situation for an endangered animal versus a human?

Gray wolf
Gray wolf (Gary Kramer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

On the other side, some people are saying that the Endangered Species Act may put humans at a greater risk. Renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall made a statement on the events that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo, saying, “…it takes time for a tranquilizing dart to take effect. It was awful for the child, the parents, Harambe, the zoo, the keepers and the public. But when people come into contact with wild animals, life and death decisions sometimes have to be made.” Many people believe that a human’s life is more valuable than the life of an animal, regardless of whether it is close to extinction or not. And, some argue that the Endangered Species Act should be monitored at the state level. In one instance in particular in 2010, two hunters from Montana were suddenly surrounded by a pack of wolves. The hunters were caught in a life-or-death situation, in which they killed the wolves in self-defense. This  happened just after a federal judge ruled to relist the gray wolf as endangered after the Bush administration had removed it from the Endangered Species Act. (Note: This population of wolves is currently delisted.) Utah Congressman Rob Bishop stated, “In most instances, state and local officials are better situated and more capable of managing and preserving wildlife than the federal government.”

What do you think? Should we always side with the protection of a human life or should we value these organisms that we are driving to extinction at a higher level than an individual human life?

More Resources

Video: BBC
Harambe Gorilla Killing: Zoo Defends Shooting
Hear from the director of the Cincinnati Zoo about their decision to shoot Harambe, the gorilla.

Article: International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
Jane Goodall, Azzedine Downes Together Offer Thoughts on Tragic Harambe Killing
Read an interview with Dr. Jane Goodall and Azzedine Downes, President and CEO of IFAW, about their opinions on the killing of Harambe the gorilla.

Article: The Conversation
How Do We Weigh the Moral Value of Human Lives Against Animal Ones?
This article explores human compassion, what we are willing to sacrifice, and the moral rights of humans, other animals and the environment.

Article: Gun Owners of America
Self-Defense Versus the Endangered Species Act
The Director of Federal Affairs for Gun Owners of America, a grassroots lobbying organization, discusses a situation in which gray wolves, which were federally listed as endangered, were killed by hunters in self-defense.

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KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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