Cincinnati has known two Harambes. The first was Harambe the gorilla, a lowland silverback who came to the Cincinnati Zoo in 2014 and died this May when a zookeeper shot him to protect a young boy who had fallen into the Gorilla World enclosure.
The second is Harambe the meme, a collection of images, joke formats, pranks, repurposed song lyrics, and a coordinated deluge on social media that forced the zoo to abandon its Twitter account in late August. Maybe by the time this story appears, no one will be talking about Harambe anymore and the Cincinnati Zoo will have a working Twitter account again. But that seems unlikely. [Update: The Cincinnati Zoo returned to Twitter on October 18. The Harambe army is still out in force.] According to this magazine’s own podcast, Harambe is the most famous Cincinnati by-product since chili.
How did one dead gorilla capture the collective imagination and dominate social media all summer? The immediate reaction to Harambe’s death was outrage directed both at the child’s mother and the zoo: She was negligent, they were heartless. What would have been a minor local tragedy before social media suddenly became international news. And somewhere in there—a combination of the circumstances, the name, and a healthy amount of anthropomorphism—Harambe became a symbol to many. Instead of fading away after a few news cycles, the gorilla only grew in stature following his demise, like an obscure songwriter unappreciated in his own time. Harambe lived on in his new life as virtual surrogate for all the loss and horror of the year.
At the Cincinnati Zoo, his loss was felt keenly. But there’s no stopping the cycle of life. Many new additions were welcomed: two giraffes, an Andean condor, and a litter of cheetah cubs were born this year. And while the sincere outrage seemed to dissipate after the first week of June, the internet was not going to let Harambe rest in peace. Ironic jokes became real-life pranks and outright harassment. By summer’s end, Harambe-jokers would drive the zoo to cut off its social media accounts and make director Thane Maynard publicly plead for an end to the memes. If Harambe momentarily “broke the internet,” then the internet nearly broke the zoo.
Cincinnati resident Matt Christman (@cushbomb), one-third of the political humor podcast Chapo Trap House, saw Harambe at the zoo. “There was nothing about him that made me think ‘He’s gonna be a star someday,’” he recalls. “Yeah, it was just another day at the zoo, at that time. I didn’t realize what it would become.”
But then, who could have? At the end of June, when the persistence of Harambe mentions for a full month meant he’d already had an unusually long period of relevance, Christman theorized on Twitter that “the popularity of Harambe jokes proves that people want to laugh about murder but feel bad about it. Ape murder is the perfect compromise.”
The popularity of Harambe jokes proves that people want to laugh about murder but feel bad about it. Ape murder is the perfect compromise.
— Matt Christman (@cushbomb) June 26, 2016
“The interesting thing about Harambe memes and jokes is that immediately after his death there really weren’t that many,” says Christman. The earliest ones originated in the week after the shooting, with Twitter users mocking up funeral programs and adding him to collages of 2016 celebrity deaths. The absurdist jokers of the left and media wings of Twitter followed soon after, particularly delighting in song parodies. They sounded like the songs people sing to their pets, replacing nouns with their cat’s name. Ha-ram-be: three syllables that easily fit into so many places, from “The Next Episode” to The Cranberries’ “Zombie” to an entire reworking of “Mr. Brightside.” A representative sample is Fusion editor Adam Weinstein’s revision of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen: “It goes like this / the fourth and fifth / Harambe fall and the toddler lift / the baffled sniper shooting halleluiaaaaaa.”
The gaming community’s contribution was the call to action “Dicks Out For Harambe,” which was quickly turned into a popular hashtag by comedian Brandon Wardell, who posted a Vine of himself and actor Danny Trejo repeating the phrase. The memes spread to traditional media and political institutions by late July, when a young man holding a “Bush Did Harambe” sign outside of the Democratic National Convention appeared in the background of an MSNBC live shot.
Where there are dick jokes and pranks and phrases that are incomprehensible to outsiders, there are teens, responsible for many a Harambe joke IRL—like the four young women who wore shirts spelling out “RIP Harambe 1999–2016” for their Michigan high school student IDs, and the incoming freshman at Northwestern (a Cleveland native) who started a Justice for Harambe SuperPAC. Finest of all was the William Henry Harrison High School student who donned a gorilla costume and ran along the sidelines at the school’s first football game of the season, dragging another student behind him.
One of the witnesses of this stunt, 16-year-old junior Savannah Hennen, posted a picture of herself to Twitter with the costumed student. Hennen dates a player on the team, and was in the stands texting with him while weather delayed the kick-off that night. He told her who was in the gorilla costume, and according to Hennen, “he’s kind of been a local legend since then.”
She says that her football player boyfriend is really into Harambe. “He is part of this whole big group at our school that all they really talk about anymore is Harambe,” she says. “Whenever I bring it up he’ll just quit talking to me and say, ‘This is a sensitive subject.’ He’ll get weird about it. It’s weird.” For her part, Hennen had seen Harambe at the zoo multiple times, and wasn’t happy with how everything was handled. “Social media has just made it a joke,” she told me. “There still is a serious side but mostly it’s just memes and stuff now.”
A lot of the “stuff” took place at professional sporting events, where Harambe is now a cross between Darude’s “Sandstorm” (that ubiquitous techno anthem) and John 3:16. In Boston, a fan in a #69 Harambe jersey ran out onto the field at Fenway Park. The Minnesota Vikings team chanted “Spoons Out For Harambe!” before their season opener. Spectators at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey yelled out “Rest in peace, Harambe!” after a Jordan Spieth putt. At least one Bengals fan was seen sporting a Harambe jersey at a preseason game. And when Noah Syndegaard was in town with the Mets, he went to the zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit in a tie-dyed “RIP Harambe” T-shirt and posted a photo on Instagram that made visual reference to “Dicks Out For Harambe” by pixelating his crotch.
Conquer sports and the national conversation is yours. Every outlet that covers the internet weighed in on the persistence of Harambe memes: The Washington Post, New York magazine, the Daily Dot, the Verge. There was a meme explainer on Vox. No one could ascribe a definitive meaning to or reason for the Harambe buzz, but the thrust of most attempts boiled down to three things: Harambe could mean anything to anyone; he could not easily be co-opted by brands; and he provided a way to joke about death.
Christman thinks the timing of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shootings might have extended the initial life of the meme. “2016 has been the year of these horrifying mass casualty events and part of me wonders: To what degree are people having that perverse desire to do morbid humor about mass violence but are stopped by the sense that it’s too morbid or transgressive to do so?” he says. “And [then] there’s this dead ape sitting there and this absurd situation—shot in this enclosure—which has sort of a transgressive frisson to it but is not so far over the line [that] you become a total shitlord [by joking about it].”
There will always be those not afraid to cross over that line. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted “Harambe became a big meme thing because it’s a ‘funny African name’ that people can make fun of without feeling racist.” The cover of ironic jokes has often been used to excuse casually racist statements, and it didn’t take much searching to find explicitly racist uses of the memes, like when images of Harambe were used to harass Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones.
Of course, here in Cincinnati, Harambe had a whole life before fame. On the internet, he didn’t exist until he died, and it was of no concern to his eager eulogizers that the actual people who worked with and cared for the gorilla couldn’t escape his virtual presence. People had to tend the Cincinnati Zoo’s social media accounts. People who, in the immediate aftermath, had been hailed for their great public response in PR blogs. Who, try as they might to move on from an incredibly painful incident, have instead been reminded of it constantly. And it wasn’t the people angry about Harambe’s death who upset them the most. That, it seems, they were prepared for and could handle. What was so upsetting was the persistence of memes that made a mockery of their deceased gorilla.
And they were really getting hammered. In fact, no major city institution escaped having some kind of Harambe content in their mentions. People talk to the police department, the city, the chamber of commerce, the Enquirer, the Reds, and the Bengals about Harambe. Locally, WCPO’s web editor attempted to stop the madness in mid-August, creating his own Change.org petition calling for an end to Harambe memes. (It’s got 90 supporters so far; the petition on the same site asking the Cincinnati Bengals to rename themselves the Harambes has more than 24,000).
Finally, toward the end of August, zoo director Thane Maynard issued a public statement to the Associated Press: “We are not amused by the memes, petitions, and signs about Harambe. Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us.” What he didn’t say was …And so we’re quitting Twitter. But that’s what happened a day later when the zoo director’s plea for common decency backfired and the amount of replies the zoo was getting hit a new high. Or, in this case, low. And so, the Cincinnati Zoo deactivated its Twitter account, perhaps hoping to avoid the fate of Maynard’s personal account, which had already been hacked twice.
Public relations conventional wisdom is that it’s a mistake to buckle to trolling pressure like this; while the zoo was praised for its transparency during the original incident, shutting down its Twitter account both emboldens trolls who get to feel effective and leaves the zoo vulnerable to potential online imitators.
The hacker, zoo harassers, and meme propagators alike have all been referred to as “Harambe sympathizers” in multiple stories about the phenomenon, but this seems to confer an intention better reserved for animal rights activists. “For every tweet about half-price admission at the zoo on visitor appreciation day, there will be dozens of replies about how Harambe liked half-price admission, or how Harambe liked visitors, or how Harambe liked appreciation,” wrote Barry Petchesky in a Deadspin post titled “Leave The Cincinnati Zoo’s Twitter Account Alone.” That post was published just hours before the terminal hack of Maynard’s account.
But there is some sincere feeling behind it all. Christman describes it as something like identification. “At a certain point something like this is always going to awaken in a lot of people just a sense of absurdity, the confinement of life in the late capitalist structures that we find ourselves in,” he says. “I think we all feel like Harambe sometimes. We didn’t ask to be born, we didn’t ask to be in this structure, and yet we are punished for it.” Certainly Maynard and his colleagues at the zoo have a unique understanding of how it feels to be at the mercy of inexplicable and absurd forces.
Like the high schoolers in Harrison, a lot of Harambists want to have it both ways: to enjoy a massive joke at someone else’s expense while also maintaining that they are seriously mourning. The alleged hacker, @prom, told the New York Daily News he was “not sure” why he hacked Maynard’s account to tweet “#DicksOutForHarambe,” saying: “At the time when it actually happened I was kinda angry at the dude who shot him.” As this story went to press, @prom’s Twitter accounts were inactive, but a screenshot shows him tweeting at zoo spokesperson Michelle Curley early in the hours of August 23: “Hey @mdcurley I have a request! Check Dms!!” Curley certainly avoids unwanted direct messages on Twitter by now. (Neither Curley nor any other zoo employee responded to my requests for comment on this story.)
If the zoo ever returns to Twitter, it might be to reveal their trump card: They have the ability to give Harambe a second life. Of sorts. In a press conference soon after Harambe’s death, Maynard mentioned a part of the zoo’s breeding program that is described in detail on the zoo’s Harambe FAQ web page:
The Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) was able to cryopreserve a sample of Harambe’s sperm using a procedure called post-mortem gamete rescue. CREW frequently uses this technique to preserve valuable genetics of various threatened and endangered wildlife species following the death of an individual. The samples will be stored in liquid nitrogen at -320 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means that Harambe may not be the last of his line. That could mean closure to his life as meme or an infinite extension of it. Harambe, as they say, would have loved the possibilities.