Why the Internet Won’t Let Harambe the Gorilla Die


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Why the Internet Won’t Let Harambe the Gorilla Die

Why are Harambe memes so enduringly popular?

Harambe died for our sins, but he never truly went away.

It's almost exactly two months since Harambe the gorilla was shot at Cincinnati Zoo, passing into the gorilla afterlife and fame as social media's "Harambae."

In the background of TV coverage at the RNC, a protestor holds a sign reading "BUSH DID HARAMBE." Meanwhile, on The Donald's subreddit, users suggest it was Hillary Clinton. In the town of Willoughby, Ohio, citizens pass through a street renamed "Harambe Drive" on Google Maps, thanks to the efforts of dedicated "Harambe activists." "Dicks out for Harambe," an unusual rallying call, has even reached the ears of celebrities.


Harambe is everywhere, sealed into memehood for eternity, glaring out from screens with his world-weary eyes. It's an unheard-of level of mourning, not least for a gorilla we hardly knew.

How did we get here? On May 28, a four-year-old boy named Isaiah Dickerson climbed into Harambe's enclosure, watched by a crowd including his terrified mother, who can be heard on recordings of the incident shouting "Mommy's right here" from the fence. The 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla, a critically endangered species, dragged the child through water and grabbed at his hand until a zoo worker intervened by shooting Harambe dead.

Outrage ensued. Harambe's death made newspaper headlines, prompting outrage and sentimentality, and even calls for the parents of Isaiah to face criminal charges, with over 490,000 signing a petition calling for "Justice for Harambe."

Tweets by mildly unlikeable celebrities including Piers Morgan and Ricky Gervais, alternately snide and sanctimonious, pushed the incident further towards parody. Almost instantly, Harambe became the stuff of 4chan memes and "Harambro" humour, which simultaneously mocks and celebrates the fallen primate as a symbol of online outrage. The histrionic, one-in-a-million circumstances of his death, along with the overwrought public, made Harambe the internet's absurdist pin-up.

I only check Twitter for Harambe memes
— Tyler (@teddy_tie) July 26, 2016


But time has passed, and the internet's affections move on quickly. Why does Harambe keep coming back from the dead? This week, a mural in Melbourne by artist Lushsux, previously "in loving memory of" Taylor Swift (after her career was "ended" by Kim Kardashian's snapchats), was transformed into a memorial for Harambe, putting the late gorilla back in news headlines. The jokes on Twitter began again. What makes Harambe so endlessly meme-able?

Perhaps it's because, as an animal dead by human misadventure, the ape is the eternal underdog. One meme which attracted hundreds of thousands of retweets this week offered a glimpse into Bernie Sanders's living room, where a framed picture of Harambe had apparently been placed on a shelf. Had the embattled Vermont senator found a totem in the martyred gorilla? Was he trying to send out a message?

Of course, it was fake. Irish Twitter user and meme purveyor @PrayforPatrick created it with Photoshop, somehow managing to dupe people into believing that Bernie would actually memorialise a fallen gorilla next to pictures of his family. The tweet was subsequently cribbed by 1.6 million-follower account @Dory and showed up in stories on Buzzfeed and Irish site The Journal.

"Most people saw it for what it was," Patrick told me in a Twitter DM, "though there were a good few people who, for some reason, believed it was genuine. Most of those people were American."


- friEND
- bestfriEND
- girlfriEND
- boyfriEND
- Harambe

Only Harambe has no end…
— memearchive (@memearchive) July 24, 2016

Another reason for Harambe's enduring appeal could be that his death perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of vegan clickbait, one I'll provisionally call animal misery porn. Headlines like "Terrified Cow Cries Thinking She's Headed For the Slaughter" or "Adorable Puppy was Hooked on Meth and Heroin" come to mind; stories which sometimes come from a good place, sincerely written out of love and concern for animal welfare, but which more often are designed to harvest clicks out of shock and outrage. Often they originate on viral news sites, which seek out the most grotesque and graphic stories for clicks.

Unless you are friends with particularly abrasive PETA members, animal misery porn tends to stay confined to its own part of the internet. But as an animal interest story, Harambe managed to transcend his origins, instigating an international controversy. Part of the appeal, as a headline, is that it pits animal life directly against that of a human child: Given the choice, what kind of person would choose the gorilla?

This might be why Harambe lives on most of all in satire on Change.org, social media's favourite echo chamber for outrage. There are now 119 Change.org petitions in Harambe's name. Some are serious; one says, "All zoos should adopt 'Bokito Law,' where a creature is tranquillised rather than killed," while another calls for "Harambe's Law" to bring in tougher legal consequences for the killing of animals and is signed by over 200,000 people.


But the majority of these petitions are less credible, or downright ludicrous. Users want Harambe to be put on the dollar bill and added to Pokémon Go, or to "Change Gorilla Glue to Harambe Glue." Others take a more ghoulish approach—"Cincinnati Zoo, Sacrifice the child to resurrect Harambe"—and feature trolling in the comments, occasionally venturing into racism and off-colour jokes, but equally heavy on benign absurdist humour.

Thinkpiece idea: Harambe is Princess Diana to millennials
— Carl Kinsella (@TVsCarlKinsella) July 25, 2016

A large part of Harambe's longevity as a meme might also be simply because he's unexpectedly versatile. There is something blue steel about that gorilla's face: in some pictures it looks almost as though he's pouting. Harambe can show up anywhere: in Pokémon Go you can play as Team Instinct, Team Mystic, Team Valor and now Team Harambe (not actually, but in spirit…). The game Overwatch has been especially fruitful for Harambe memes thanks to the character of Winston, a weaponised genetically engineered gorilla.

One final explanation for Harambe's popularity is simply that he latched on to the internet's sense of the absurd. 2016 is a year of bitter chaos, one in which conspiracy theories became real and indiscriminate cruelty has reigned. No one, it seems, can escape unscathed. That a toddler could climb a three-foot fence, crawl through bushes and fall a further 15 feet into the moat of the gorilla's enclosure seems freakish. Harambe had to die, but not for any good reason. When we laugh at his death, perhaps we are laughing at our own futility, in the face of random destruction.

Sometimes Harambe humour confronts this head on: One particularly entertaining thread on Reddit's /r/teenagers titled "Harambe and his life" argues that they should be talking about him more "Due to his cultural significance and how his death has sparked the so-called 'Brexit' and the refugee crisis." People are aware of what's going on in the wider world; they'd just rather be making jokes about a gorilla.

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