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.
RIP to the legends #2016deaths pic.twitter.com/jdPoRTPp2G— WORLDSTARHIPHOP (@WORLDSTAR) June 7, 2016
Muhammad Ali first day in heaven pic.twitter.com/XdGY47z0zM— Mike Ginn (@shutupmikeginn) June 5, 2016
#2016belike #davidbowie #merlehaggard #alanrickman #prince #Harambe #MuhammadAli #rip #celebrities #gorillas pic.twitter.com/DkGkbPE43U— Clint House (@DocHouseJax) June 4, 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.
God damn man, my boy Harambe had some deep connections https://t.co/n6UXGZatiM— return of the M̶a̶c̶k̶ belt (@branflakeassMAN) June 18, 2016
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.
I think it is touching that after 2016 AD they are going to start over with 1 AH – After Harambe.— Bernie Sanders 2020 (@hamsandcastle) June 22, 2016
The latest stage of grief calls for immortalizing Harambe in parody song.
record this pic.twitter.com/MIm9nbq7pF— Shinjawn (@FanSince09) June 23, 2016
harambe matata— leon (@leyawn) June 18, 2016
what a wonderful ape
shot you in your cage
I'm a little off-key b/c I'm making an ass out of myself in front of Oakland City Hall but here goes: pic.twitter.com/8k50zfpwgC— Christina Toms (@ChristinaToms) June 23, 2016
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.
little known fact about harambe is that he's the first gorilla to go platinum with no features in 25 years— aNSH (@anshvp) June 14, 2016
My daughter will be named "RIP"— Dilpreet Raju (@KangarooRaju) June 14, 2016
And my son will be named "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.
Just took 93yr Gran to vote, she's registered blind. In a loud voice she said 'Cecil the Lion was a nonce'. A cheer went up from voters— Lee (@Cybershmuck) June 23, 2016
harambe. this jaguar. cecil the lion. david bowie. the greatest band ever is playing heaven right now https://t.co/hgT4lGTRHg— thomas violence (@thomas_violence) June 22, 2016
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.