I named Harambe. What his death means to me

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Story highlights

  • The Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed a western lowland gorilla called Harambe on Saturday
  • Dan Van Coppenolle: Harambe's name can serve as a lesson for all of us

Dan Van Coppenolle is a retired special education teacher, special education counselor, and general education counselor from Brownsville, Texas. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The death of Harambe, the 17-year-old silverback gorilla who was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a boy slipped into his enclosure, has made headlines around the world. I hope that with those headlines comes some reflection among members of the public, starting with the message of his name. I truly believe in the message contained in that name -- because I was the one who chose it.

When I entered the baby gorilla naming contest in 1999, I somehow knew the name Harambe would be the one that was chosen. It came to me one day while I was on my treadmill listening to some music. A song by Rita Marley, "Harambe," came on. It was a live performance recording from a Bob Marley Tribute concert in Central Park. Halfway through the song, Marley explained what Harambe means. It's a Swahaili name meaning working together, pulling together, helping each other, caring, and sharing. I remember thinking what a cool word it was and that I should share it with my students.
    Dan Van Coppenolle
    After I was finished exercising, I sat down to read my local paper and came across an article about a contest to name a baby gorilla at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. Immediately, a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought of Harambe. It seemed perfect: an inspiring African name for an endangered species.
    At the time, I was a special education counselor who traveled to many schools working with special education students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities. As fate would have it, I was attending a counseling in-service that day at a conference room at the zoo. I decided to type up my entry along with a description of the word Harambe. The uplifting message of the name seemed fitting, and the judges agreed.
    I was extremely excited to learn that the name Harambe had been chosen. A few days later, the public relations manager for the zoo picked me up at a school I was working at that day and took me to lunch. We then drove to the KGBT studios to announce the winning name on the noon news broadcast before heading to the zoo to be interviewed by the Brownsville Herald. I got to spend some quality time with Harambe and Jerry Stones, a curator there who had lovingly raised Harambe from a newborn.
    Over the years, our two sons and four nephews grew up as Harambe did. We were all regular visitors to the zoo, where we spent a lot of time observing and watching him get bigger. In fact, the family was so fond of Harambe that he was affectionately referred to as my adopted son.
    All my students have learned about the baby gorilla I named, and we took countless school field trips to the zoo to see Harambe. I incorporated Harambe and the meaning of his name into my lessons, where I would discuss concepts like compassion, cooperation and tolerance. I worked at Gonzalez Elementary for 11 years, and pretty much every student who came through the school knew Harambe and what his name meant.
    A few years ago, at a Zoofari fundraiser at the Gladys Porter Zoo, my brother-in-law was the winning bidder at an auction of a painting done by Harambe. Shortly after that, I got word that Harambe had been moved to the Cincinnati Zoo. I was disappointed as I knew that going to the zoo just wasn't going to be the same. Upon learning of his death this week, my wife, sons, nephews, students and family members were deeply saddened. But despite this sadness, I am also hopeful.
    Harambe's name -- and even his death -- can serve as a lesson for all of us. The truth is, human beings have become distant from nature, and increasingly from each other. But Harambe's name can be a reminder for all of us to work together, pull together, help each other, share, and care not just for each other, but for all of God's creations.
    From a personal perspective, I hope Harambe's remains can be returned to his homeland in Africa. But I am optimistic that even this won't be the end of Harambe's story. Instead, I hope that the headlines and discussion of what happened will help increase awareness of -- and perhaps fundraising efforts for -- the endangered African lowland gorillas still in their native habitat.
    If Harambe's message can reach even more people over the coming weeks and months, then perhaps more can be done to ensure that one day, we won't have to resort to raising these great creatures in captivity to help ensure the species' survival.