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An Expert Explains What Happens to Gorillas After They Die in Zoos

The gorilla Harambe was shot by Cincinnati Zoo workers after a small boy fell into his enclosure, but a professor says the silver lining is that his body could be valuable for research purposes.

by Mike Pearl
Jun 1 2016, 4:00am

Photo of a gorilla in the UK's Bristol Zoo via Wikipedia

By now, you've probably heard about Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot to death on Saturday by workers in order to save a small child who had fallen into the zoo's gorilla enclosure. There's an ongoing criminal investigation, but prominent zoo experts have called the killing justified, and at this point everyone, even Donald Trump, agrees that the whole story pretty much sucks.

The boy is reportedly fine, and after a brief hospital visit to treat injuries sustained by being manhandled by the gorilla, he went home with his family. But what happens to the gorilla's body?

Ape corpses are extremely rare, and there are scientists out there who would love to get their hands on one. VICE called the Cincinnati Zoo to find out what it was going to do with Harambe's remains, but the media relations department was unable to provide an answer.

So we turned to Adrienne Zihlman, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz—and dissector of many, many gorillas—to ask where gorillas go when they die. She explained that there's an opportunity for scientific discovery underneath this tragedy.

VICE: What happens to a gorilla like Harambe when he dies?
Adrienne Zihlman: Some of the zoos actually burn them, or make them into skeletons and give them to museums or universities. I don't know what [Cincinnati] does with its animals.

Why don't all gorillas get donated to scientists?
You never know when an animal is going to die. Sometimes they're ill, and sometimes they just die very suddenly, so [from the scientist's perspective] it's a matter of having a network. Otherwise, it's really, really difficult to get these animals. My success with getting animals—especially bonobo chimpanzees and gorillas—has been working with zoos where you're known.

How does Harambe's body compare to other gorilla bodies?
It's such a valuable animal. He was obviously so beautiful, and in prime condition. He was also young [seventeen years old], because male gorillas are just barely adults by the age of fifteen. They really don't reach their prime until more like twenty.

Is it rare for a gorilla of Harambe's age to get dissected?
In general, it's rare, because they're so taken care of, and they're very healthy. It's a waiting game.

Are you looking into dissecting Harambe?
I got an email from one of my former students saying, "Shall we try and get it?" I said, "I'm at the point of trying to get things written up, not collecting more data." It's the most incredibly physically taxing project, and I'm not as young as I used to be.

What's a dissection like?
You have a scalpel and a pair of forceps. You take it apart, and you weigh every single thing in the whole body. There's all of the skin, there's two hundred thirty muscles individually. You can use your imagination. It's several of us working day and night for a week. We dissected them fresh. They weren't in formaldehyde. We had to keep them frozen, and then unfreeze them and get busy. You're working fairly quickly.

Why is it worth all that work?
We just don't know very much about the anatomy of these animals, and when you get older animals, they're different. After I was able to dissect several male silverbacks in their thirties, I got a twenty-seven-year-old who was in prime condition and dropped dead of heart failure. He wasn't sick. He was in perfect condition. That's the value of this particular animal if people know what to do with it.

What did you gain from that younger specimen?
It changed what I thought I knew about gorillas by having that particular younger animal. That's the value of having a sample size. You can learn about the effects of age and disease and nutrition and things like that. In humans, the aging process is that you lose muscle and gain fat, or if you have a disease, you lose weight and muscle. If you are in your prime and you fall over dead, everything about your anatomy is frozen at a good point in time.

Is it a problem for dissection that Harambe got shot?
It wouldn't make any difference at all.

And what would you say if his body wound up getting burned?
I would just say it's a lost opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.