Remembering Harambe: Social Media Pays Tribute To Viral Gorilla One Year After His Death

In the lead-up to Memorial Day 2017, social media users have taken to their favorite platforms, remembering Harambe on the one-year anniversary of his fatal shooting at the Cincinnati Zoo.

For those who need their memory jogged on the event that triggered countless memes in the days and months that followed, the Harambe incident took place on May 28, 2016, one day after the male gorilla celebrated his 17th birthday. As CNN recalled last year, a 3-year-old boy had made his way into the gorilla’s enclosure, putting him face-to-face with the 450-pound animal as the boy’s mother was “temporarily distracted by other children.” Harambe then pulled the young child across a moat, which was where Cincinnati Zoo personnel fired at the animal, fatally wounding him in order to save the boy’s life.

Exactly one year and numerous memes and pop culture references later, the internet is again remembering Harambe. In the aftermath of his shooting, social media users called for the boy’s parents to be charged with negligence while demanding “justice for Harambe” through petitions and other methods. But once the furor died down, the late gorilla had become a meme in ways that nobody had ever expected, according to a retrospective piece from the Independent.

“There were jokes. There were Photoshopped pictures of Harambe with celebrities. He appeared on election ballot papers. Harambe had become a message, an entity divorced from the reality of the gorilla, a thing that existed and evolved and grew on the internet. He had become a meme.”

Over time, Harambe-mania would die down, as the internet found other subjects for their memes, including, but not limited to Meryl Streep’s “shouting” photo from the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards, and 13-year-old Dr. Phil guest Danielle Bregoli, the “Cash Me Outside” girl. But it would seem that it’s in vogue to remember Harambe one year after his death, as evidenced by the flurry of posts looking back on what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo and what followed soon after.

The above tweets are just a few of the thousands looking back on the one-year anniversary of Harambe the gorilla’s killing. And that doesn’t include the many Twitter users who posted the words “d**ks out for Harambe.” This is a reference to a catchphrase that took off when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student Brandon Zaboklicki and Los Angeles-based standup comedian Brandon Wardell separately popularized the line, with the latter’s Vine featuring actor Danny Trejo saying the line serving as a catalyst for its viral explosion. Both men told Cosmopolitan in December of last year that neither of them were expecting the catchphrase to become so popular, but as we’re seeing now, many people are remembering Harambe by tweeting the R-rated line in tribute.

A search for Harambe’s name on Twitter also reveals several Photoshopped images of the gorilla, including a picture of him with an angel’s wings and halo, as well as the above tweet featuring Harambe with an American flag backdrop, and the words “Never Forget: 5.28.16” on the upper-right corner.

One year later, it may still be a surprise to some that the fatal shooting of a zoo gorilla could evoke such emotion in social media users, while inspiring so many memes in the event’s wake. So why do people decide to remember Harambe one year after, and why did these memes get so popular in the first place, despite the tragic circumstances behind these ostensibly amusing posts?

Speaking to the Independent, Drake University Law School professor Shontavia Johnson explained that it all boils down to people supporting each other whenever something tragic happens, and the ease in which social media allows us to do these things.

“These kinds of events are important to us, perhaps because we’ve been to pop concerts or have an affinity for certain wildlife, and naturally as more people, who are used to communicating through hashtags and memes, talk about these tragedies, they will use communication methods most familiar to them,” said Johnson.

“We want to be connected to other humans in times of crisis – memes and hashtags allow us to express a level of familiarity with many other people instantly.”

Despite social media’s best efforts to remember Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo confirmed that it is not planning any public memorial for the gorilla. According to a report from the Associated Press (via the Columbus Dispatch), zoo officials are instead planning to expand their Gorilla World exhibit next month, while also focusing on new arrivals to the zoo, such as a prematurely-born hippopotamus named Fiona.

[Featured Image by John Minchillo/AP Images]