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Harambe the gorilla lives on in beautifully tasteless memes

The long goodbye.


Miles Klee

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 24, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 1:34 pm CDT

On May 28, 2016, a 17-year-old male gorilla named Harambe was killed by the Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team after a 4-year-old boy fell into his enclosure. There was an investigation. There were petitions against the boy’s supposedly negligent parents and thinkpieces about zoo safety. There was an official statement from primatologist Jane Goodall. Most of all, there was uncontrolled, uninformed outrage.

But by the following week, most people had moved on. Most.

In the immediate wake of Harambe’s death, we saw several attempts to meme the tragedy, most notably by way of a racist comparison between the gorilla and an aboriginal athlete. But it wasn’t until the furor had subsided that we began to see almost earnest attempts to honor Harambe in memes. Many began counting him among the celebrities we’ve lost so far in 2016.

As June marched on, further distancing us from the Cincinnati incident, it was clear that the Harambe jokes weren’t going away anytime soon. It began to seem they were always destined to outlast the controversy itself.

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And in some strange way, Twitter and Facebook‘s most irony-addled users appeared to be in genuine mourning. The more Harambe memes we got, the more they took on an elegiac tone that cut through any humor. By exaggerating Harambe’s importance, these people paid their respects to the late great ape the only way they knew how—with extreme sarcasm.

The latest stage of grief calls for immortalizing Harambe in parody song. 

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But the beauty of Harambe content, in this reporter’s humble opinion, is that it’s endlessly adaptive and surprising. You’re scrolling through Twitter on the toilet one afternoon and then, suddenly, boom: Harambe.

At this point, it’s impossible to deny: We just can’t let Harambe go. How is it that despite not knowing about him until he was murdered we feel such strong kinship with this noble beast? Perhaps our collective, performative “heartache” provides a commentary about the sheer absurdity of an entire nation (with bigger problems to worry about) wringing their hands over an unfortunate zoo accident. Maybe, as with outrage over Cecil the lion, who was killed by an American hunter, we’re mocking the virality of injustice against exotic animals, which does little to curb such mistreatment.

That would certainly be the nihilistic read, anyway. Yet I see a larger, better force at work. In an age of refreshable news feeds and #trends, we can’t help but see how helpless we are to turn the tide of cruelty and pain. We cannot log on each morning without absorbing a poison dose of unexpected horror. By clinging to stories like Harambe’s—and even making light of it—we try to mark where we stood and what we endured in the toxic whirlpool of public opinion. Just as our parents remember watching man land on the moon, we will never forget the afternoon the internet was utterly consumed by the execution of a gorilla. And we have been scarred for life.

So don’t write Harambe memes off as callous punchlines. Nobody really wanted him dead; we are simply trying to make sense of his senseless life. Though we couldn’t save him, we can revere him—and celebrate him. And, if nothing else, we can try to atone as a species.

RIP, Harambe.  

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*First Published: Jun 24, 2016, 9:30 am CDT