The Adam or Ape Dilemma: Should America Sin Twice Against Harambe?

Here it is! I promised some of you on social media that I would write a paper in seminary on Harambe- I’m a man of my word. Here’s a slightly adapted case study paper I wrote for my Theological Ethics professor, Dr. Luy. We were told to give a narrative piece setting up an ethical dilemma, give a critical appraisal, and then finish with a practical recommendation. Dr. Luy, along with my brother Joel and all over my older colleagues in AIA were surprised with my recommendation. But many of the Millennials and Zoomers I spoke with came down on the same side as me. That might not be a great thing… I don’t know what to do, I changed my mind four or five times throughout the course of writing this. Let me know what you would do! Enjoy.

This is going to be Cincinnati all over again! Of course, this would happen ten minutes before my shift ends! Okay, let’s think- this is too important for rash decisions. My rifle is in the keeper’s shed, I could grab that and be back in less than a minute. But then I would have to kill him. Three of our tranq guns are in with Tony at the shop for maintenance. Sarah has the fourth on her, but she’s all the way up in Hoofed Animals helping Cameel give birth to her first calf. There’s no way she could run back down here to Tropic World in less than ten minutes. And that guy won’t last more than five minutes in there with Utunzaji[1]. Man! I really don’t see how this could end without death. God help me!

Out of all the enclosures to climb into, this drunk teenager just had to pick Utunzaji, our only male Western Lowland Gorilla. If this kid, let’s call him Adam since I don’t know his name yet, would have climbed in last week this wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this week we zoo keepers have been prepping Utunzaji for his breeding appointment with a female Western Lowland Gorilla who will be on loan from the San Francisco Zoo. In preparation for their breeding, Utunzaji has been on a special diet and we have been treating him with the necessary hormones to help the success of the union- this is all standard operating procedure, of course. But with the mating preparation comes an increased aggression; Utunzaji is especially irritable and protective of his territory. We sent our tranquilizer guns out for maintenance in order to be ready for Utunzaji’s union at the end of the month.

Since that hellish situation at the Cincinnati Zoo back in May, 2016, Utunzaji has become our number one hope for the breeding program. Cincinnati was every zoo keeper’s nightmare, a three-year-old boy fell into the enclosure of Utunzaji’s older brother, Harambe. Harambe was shot and killed in order to protect the boy. Without Harambe, the burden fell to Utunzaji to help repopulate the wild and save the Western Lowlanders from extinction. I’m afraid without him our dream will be dashed. I can’t shoot him! Not to save some seventeen-year-old punk who climbed into his enclosure on a dare!

But on the other hand, this is a human life we’re talking about. I can’t just let him get ripped apart, least of all in front of all these families. If I had my tranq with me this would be so much easier. Why won’t this kid get out of there? He’s just stumbling towards Utunzaji- ope! And Utunzaji has just taken notice of him! This kid doesn’t get it, he’s just stumbling around without a care in the world. Man, he is asking for it. I can’t let him die, but I can’t stop Utunzaji without killing him. Without him, the world’s population of Western Lowland Gorillas will most likely go extinct. But again, that’s a human life, and I know I’ve done some stupid things in my teens- being drunk doesn’t reduce his moral status or intrinsic human value. I’m running out of time. I have to decide right now.

Critical Appraisal

The Adam or Ape Dilemma is similar to the Trolley problems which are discussed in any good intro to ethics course. It is a dilemma in that there seems to be only two options and neither option is preferable. In our case, both options seem to require death. If the zoo keeper decides to retrieve his rifle and shoot Utunzaji, then any hopes of saving his species will most likely die with him. If, on the other hand, the zoo keeper decides not to shoot Utunzaji, then he will most likely kill the drunk teenager, Adam. The dilemma leaves the lives of Utunzaji and Adam in the hands of the zoo keeper, and time is running out.

Several factors contribute to the difficulty and moral complexity of this dilemma. It is not as simple as the Harambe case in that Adam is not a three-year-old boy. Adam is seventeen, which means he is on cusp of legal adult status, yet he is still considered a minor. Adam has also made the decision to become drunk. This factor brings in questions of culpability. Can Adam be held responsible for his actions? Well, his decision to climb into the enclosure was not made by a person in the right state of mind- Adam was drunk. But it is Adam’s fault that he is not in the right state of mind, since he decided to drink the alcohol which made him inebriated. However, while we might be tempted to prematurely allow Adam to die and chalk it up to “getting what he deserves,” the fact that he is just a seventeen-year-old ought to draw at least some sympathy out of us. Many of us have acted in extremely irresponsible and foolish ways when we were teenagers- aren’t we glad that our moral failures didn’t automatically exclude us from moral calculous all together? Did our foolishness exclude us from intrinsic human dignity and unalienable rights given to us by our Creator? Adam is still a human being, that cannot be discounted.

Another factor that contributes to the difficulty of this dilemma is the fact that Utunzaji is an endangered species. If he had been another type of Gorilla, or ape, or monkey, etc., then the dilemma would not have as much force. Yes, it would still be tragic to have to shoot another animal, but the cost would not be so astronomically high. Also, if it were another species, perhaps the threat level would not be nearly as high either. Perhaps they would have more time to plan and figure out the best option.

But as if that were not enough, Utnzaji is also an adult breeding male and although other zoos have females, males are harder to come by, especially now that Harambe, the former foremost breeding male of the species, was shot down in a similar, yet not as difficult, situation. It is precisely in the fact that the fate of his species rests in his loins that makes Utunzaji so valuable. Perhaps if Harambe were still alive, the pressure of this situation would not be so high, but alas, Harambe’s death is also a complexifying factor. Should we not say, playing off of the famous quote from Aristotle, “I will not let America sin twice against Harambe”? What does it say about humanity that we not only destroy the natural habitats of these majestic beasts, but that we also put them in tiny enclosures and shoot them at the drop of a hat to save our own?

There are also time sensitive factors that bear on the dilemma. Utunzaji is more protective than usual because of the special diet and hormones they have him on in preparation for the breeding project. This means that the likely hood of him attacking and killing Adam is exponentially increased and with it, the time frame before the altercation commences is minimized- Utunzaji is ready to defend his enclosure. Also, Sarah, another zoo keeper, has the only tranquilizer gun on the premises and it would take her at least ten minutes to bring it all the way down the enclosure. By the narrator’s lights, Adam has less than five minutes before the situation turns deadly.

While there are lots of case specific factors that serve to magnify the complexity of the Adam or Ape dilemma, there are also several philosophical and theological considerations that need to be considered as well. An important question to ask is: who is more valuable, Adam or Utunzaji? If we could find an answer to that question then finding a solution would be much easier. If Utunzaji is more valuable, then we let him do as he would to the intruder. If Adam is more valuable, then we put down Utunzaji quick and clean. But how might we go about answering the value question in the first place?

Perhaps we can decide who is more valuable by some sort of utilitarian calculous. If Adam will bring more joy, pleasure, happiness- fill in the blank with your desiderata- to the world than we shoot Utunzaji. But maybe it is Utunzaji who wins the moral calculous because he holds within himself the potential to save an entire species- and perhaps human considerations ought not be the only ones considered, lest we become “speciesists.”

Though, perhaps speciesism is not such a bad consideration after all. Maybe Adam should be spared since he is of a higher order than Utunzaji- man is the rational animal. If Adam is higher up on the chain of being than Utunzaji, if, whether teleologically or through the process of evolution, we find humans to be more capable of complex moral and rational thought than apes, then wouldn’t that be a sign that humans are more valuable than apes? Would apes ever sit around discussing such ethical dilemmas with each other? Could they even do so? If value is determined by rational and moral capacities, then we ought to value Adam more highly, drunk though he may currently be.

But ending the discussion here might be too triumphalist. Consider this, should the fact that Adam is able to think rationally and self-relexify sway us more towards saving him or towards letting him die? If he is the higher being, the one capable of complex theoretical thought, then wouldn’t he be more culpable for this dilemma? Shouldn’t we then spare poor Utunzaji who does not possess the privileged position of rational animal that Adam enjoys? Might it not be a noble display to allow Adam to face the consequences of his actions by not intervening with deadly force upon an animal who is just acting on its instincts?

But maybe the conclusion that Utunzaji is just a dumb brute has also been reached too prematurely. As philosopher Peter Singer argues, “[the great apes] have close and complex personal relationships with others in their group. They grieve for lost loved ones. They are self-aware beings, capable of thought. Their foresight and anticipation enable them to plan ahead. We can even recognize the rudiments of ethics in the way they respond to other apes who fail to return a favor.”[2] But it is not clear where this information leaves us when adjudicating value. Singer uses these facts to argue that the great apes are actually persons deserving of our respect and perhaps even our legal rights. But in the context of our moral analysis, if Utunzaji is a person then we are back to square one. After all, wouldn’t the fact that apes experience life in a similar manner as humans bring Utunzaji back up to a level playing field with Adam and thus disqualify him from our sympathy argument above? If Adam and Utunzaji are both persons, and if personhood is what we use to determine moral value, then it would seem that we are no closer to answering our dilemma.

While these philosophical considerations add to the complexity of the Adam or Ape dilemma, there are also theological factors which Christians need to consult in their attempts to answer this problem. In this dilemma two Christian doctrines are brought into conflict: the imago dei and dominion. On the one hand, Adam is an image bearer of the Living God and he has intrinsic value because of this status. In Genesis 1 we see that God put the original Adam in the Garden of Eden to represent Him as he rules over all Creation for God’s glory. Man, bears God’s image as the rational and moral arbiter of His will here on earth. Though our Adam might be an animal, he is a special class of animal, not necessarily due to his capacities, but because he is a member of the image-bearing animal class, mankind. This would seem to swing the pendulum back in Adam’s favor. But we need to consider man’s task as well as man’s class.

Mankind was created after God’s very own image and likeness, this is man’s class which we know from Genesis 1:26. But within that very same verse we see man’s task as well: dominion. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”[3] Though humans are called to represent God, we are called to represent Him to the rest of the created order. We are called to fill the earth and subdue it, to care for it, to make the rest of the world look like the Garden of Eden. The task of dominion and creation care certainly demands more of us than caring for animals and pets, but it certainly doesn’t demand less! For whoever is righteous cares for the needs and life of his beasts (Proverbs 12:10).

So, while the doctrine of the imago dei might sway us more towards shooting Utunzaji to save Adam, the doctrine of dominion would remind us that we have not been placed on this earth merely for our own sake but for the sake of caring for God’s creation, swinging it back in favor of Utunzaji. Certainly, if God cares about sparrows, be they plentiful as they are, he surely cares for His endangered species as well. As it turns out, some moral calculus might be warranted even without a cold utilitarian system given the doctrine of dominion. If Utunzaji is the best or last hope for mankind to exercise godly dominion over Western Lowland Gorillas, then it would follow that his degree of value would increase.

However, lest we prematurely tip the scales once more, we have to consider the fact that if we allow Utunzaji to kill Adam out of our sense of duty to our task of creation care, we might still be required to kill Utunzaji. We have to consider verses like Genesis 9:5-6 and Exodus 21:28 which explicitly demand the life of animals who kill God’s image bearers. God says that he will require a reckoning from every man and beast who sheds the blood of man. Now, if these commands continue to hold for us today, it would seem that Utunzaji’s life will be required of him either way. If we shoot him to save Adam, he dies. If we allow him to live and he kills Adam, then we have to kill Utunzaji afterwards. If this is the case, then it would only make sense to shoot him before he harms Adam, if for no other reason than to prevent two deaths. However, one might need to do an in-depth biblical theology of “The Law” in order to answer whether or not these imperatives continue to apply for us today in 21st century United States.

Practical Recommendations

Though I have found myself on both sides of this dilemma throughout my time pondering on it, I propose that we do not shoot Utunzaji, but instead call for Sarah to bring the tranquilizer gun and risk the death of Adam while we wait for Sarah. While there are lots of factors to consider, I think the fact that Adam is seventeen significantly distinguishes this dilemma from that of Harambe and the three-year-old. This is not a child who fell into an exhibit, this is a man who willfully trespassed and broke into an exhibit. The fact that Adam is inebriated also serves to exculpate us in our decision to risk his life. Adam has taken his life into his own hands and has put himself and a very important endangered species at risk. There are dire consequences and he may have to face the ultimate one, that is on him.

As to the Old Testament imperatives which demand the death of any animal that sheds a man’s blood, whether those are applicable only to ethnic nation of Israel at those particular times or whether they are still applicable for us today, the zoo keeper has a duty to protect and care for the animals under his charge. The job of the zoo keeper is not to doll out righteous vengeance on behalf of the LORD right there on the spot. It is up to the owners of the zoo to decide how to interpret those passages and how to act on them if they need to. So, the fact that Utunzaji might need to be put down if he kills Adam should not affect the decision process of the zoo keeper in the dilemma.

Finally, the animal is not at fault in this dilemma, Adam is at fault. If the zoo keeper actively shoots Utunzaji, then he has caused something terrible to happen, he is the agent who took life. If, however, the zoo keeper refrains from shooting Utunzaji, then he is not the agent who took life, he did not force Adam into the enclosure, he did not force Adam to become inebriated, he did not force Utunzaji to kill Adam. It can even be argued, based on one’s view of apes and personhood, that Utunzaji would not even be the agent who caused the death of Adam since apes are not moral or self-reflexive agents at all, and thus only Adam would be responsible for Adams death.

Though I recognize the tremendous weight of signing off on letting a seventeen-year-old be mauled to death by a souped-up gorilla, given the circumstances, waiting for the tranq gun and risking this state of affairs is the right choice. I also recognize the various justifications for killing Utunzaji, for firing a warning shot to scare Utunzaji back into his den, for trying to clip Utunzaji in the arm or leg, and even for shooting Adam in the leg or shoulder to keep him from getting too close to Utunzaji in the first place. While I understand these options, I think they all fall short.

Truly, none of these solutions are ideal. In an ideal world, Utunzaji wouldn’t be so valuable because he wouldn’t be an endangered species. Adam wouldn’t be an irresponsible drunken fool, and we would have all of the tranquilizer guns back because Tony wouldn’t take a billion years to fix ‘em! This situation could be prevented with a greater level of security, especially around the animal exhibits with animals that can kill image bearers who sneak in. And it can be prevented by not getting drunk before going to the zoo.

In memory of Harambe, lost but not forgotten.


Bored Panda. “Zookeeper Finally Explains What Harambe Was Actually Doing With The Kid.” Accessed November 5, 2019.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Ethics vol. I. ed. John Bolt. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

“Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo & The Chicago Zoological Society.” Accessed November 6, 2019.

Feinberg, John S., Paul D. Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World 2nd ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Singer, Peter. Ethics in The Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Van Til, Cornelius. Christian Theistic Ethics. Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980.

World Wildlife Fund. “Western Lowland Gorilla | Species | WWF.” Accessed November9,



[1] Untunzaji is Swahili for “care for” according to Google Translate.

[2] Peter Singer, “Chimpanzees Are People, Too” in Ethics in The Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) 64.

[3] ESV.

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