Traditional and social media channels were flooded with the story of Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland silverback gorilla shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo on 28 May 2016 after a four-year-old boy crawled through a barrier and fell into his enclosure.

With the benefit of hindsight, forming an opinion is easy. There are already plenty being thrown around regarding the incident and who was to blame for the tragedy.

The need to kill Harambe is exceptionally depressing: a gorilla lost his life, the zoo lost a real asset, a mother was at risk of losing her child, and staff tasked by the zoo to shoot Harambe faced emotional trauma based on the bond they likely formed with him.

In technical risk management terms, the zoo seems to have been in line with best practice.

Overall, it was a bad state of affairs. Though the case gives rise to a number of ethical issues, one way to consider it is as a risk management issue – where it presents us with some important lessons that might prevent similar circumstances from happening in the future, and ensure they are better managed if they do.

In technical risk management terms, the zoo seems to have been in line with best practice.

According to Cincinnati Zoo’s annual report, 1.5 million visitors visited the park in 2014 to 2015. Included in those numbers are hundreds of parents who visited the zoo with children who didn’t end up in any of the animal enclosures.

According to WLWT-TV, this was the first breach at the zoo since its opening in 1978. There is no doubt the zoo identified this risk and managed it with secure (until now) enclosures. There is also little doubt relevant signage and duty of care reminders would have been placed around the zoo. Staff would assume parents would manage their children and keep them safe. In the eyes of most risk management experts, this would seem to be more than sufficient.

Organisations need to put energy and effort into so called ‘black swan’ events… that are unlikely but have immense consequences if they do occur.

However, as we have seen in several cases (including Cecil the Lion) it does not seem to be the incident itself that brings the massive negative consequences but rather social media, based on the fact that the internet provides a platform for everyone to be judge and jury.

This flags the massive shift required in the way we manage risk. If we look only at the financial losses to the zoo, their decision may seem logical and rational. They were truly put in a no-win position – an immediate tactical decision was required once Harambe began dragging the child around the water.

Imagine if they had decided to tranquillise Harambe and the four-year-old boy had died while they were waiting for the tranquillisers to take effect – what would the impact have been?

The true lesson regarding this issue lies in the need for organisations to put energy and effort into so-called ‘black swan’ events – ones that are unlikely but have immense consequences if they do occur. These events are often overlooked, based only on the fact they are unlikely, leaving organisations unprepared for when they do.

The ethics of what is right and wrong tend to blur when the masses have a platform to pass judgement.

Traditional risk management approaches try to allocate scores to things and then put associated resources to the highest ranking risk issues. In this case, a risk that was deemed managed actually occurred and the result was very negative.

Whether negligent or not, various social media commentators have held the mother accountable. It seems she has been held to account based not on what she did, but for the apparently unapologetic and callous way she responded to the killing of Harambe.

This shows us risk management needs to consider the human element in a way we previously haven’t. The ethics of what is right and wrong tend to blur when the masses have a platform to pass judgement. There are many lessons to be taken from this incident, including the following considerations:

  1. Risk management and duty of care should be incorporated in a more cohesive manner, focusing on applying a BDA approach (Before, During and After).
  2. Social media backlash adds a new dimension to the way organisations should make, report and defend their decisions.
  3. Individuals can no longer purely blame the organisation they believe responsible based on negligence or breach of duty of care. Even if the individual shifts blame onto the organisation entirely, and they are not held to account by the law, they will be held to account by the general public.
  4. We have entered an era where system- and process-based risk management needs to integrate human and emotive elements to account for emotional responses.
  5. Lastly – and unrelatedly – the question of why one story attracts massive public outcry and why another doesn’t raises ethical questions regarding the way we consume news, the way the media reports it, and the upsides and downsides of social media.

In short this is another case of how much work we still have to do – especially in the modern internet age – to proactively and ethically manage risk.

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Was Harambe just a risk management disaster?