As an animal lover, I think the shooting of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo last weekend was the only reasonable thing for the handlers to do, given the danger posed to the 4-year-old that got into its enclosure.
I don’t know if the boy’s parents were negligent or overwhelmed with the task of corralling four kids at the zoo, but I have no doubt that the boy’s mother loves him. Watching the cell phone video of the incident, you can hear the terror in her voice the second she learns her son has fallen into the gorilla den.
With amazing composure, the boy’s mom shouted to her son to be brave even after Harambe had pulled him roughly through a stream. The Cincinnati Zoo successfully lured two of the three gorillas out of the encampment, but Harambe took an interest in the boy that may have been paternal. Perhaps he considered himself “protecting” him.
Harambe’s handlers didn’t have the luxury of waiting it out until the 17-year-old gorilla lost interest and wandered away. They made the right decision to shoot the 450-pound silverback western lowland gorilla because the consequences for not doing so increased each minute the animal, whatever its disposition, loomed over the boy.
A gorilla of Harambe’s size and strength can tear a grown man limb from limb without working up much of a sweat. That’s the reality. If the zoo had waited until the gorilla had seriously injured or accidentally pulverized the child, the people who are furious at the handlers for shooting Harambe would still be criticizing the parents for “negligence” and the zoo for killing the gorilla in the bloody aftermath.
Regardless of how aware the parents (assuming the father was there, too) were of what the boy was doing before he fell into the gorilla pen, watching one of their children being killed because they weren’t “vigilant” enough is too high a price for any parent to pay for that mistake.
There will be those who will disagree vehemently with this position, but it is hard to take such people seriously. They either don’t have kids and lack even a scintilla of empathy — or they do have kids and hate them.
This isn’t to say that the parents of the boy are blameless. They certainly have a moral responsibility to acknowledge the tragedy their son initiated. Perhaps a generous monetary gesture — a fundraiser perhaps — to compensate the zoo for its loss and to contribute toward the upgrade of the weak spot above the gorilla enclosure their son exposed.
For myriad legal reasons, I’m sure the unidentified family isn’t going to do much of anything beyond extending their thanks to the handlers for saving their son. The last thing they will probably do is sue the zoo because their son was clever enough to be the first person to break into the Gorilla World pen since it was built 38 years ago.
They also know that as relieved but thoroughly shaken parents, they have instigated a national debate about the quality of their parenting. This is inevitable given that an endangered gorilla was killed because of their son.
While the Cincinnati Zoo did the right thing every step of the way as far as I’m concerned, it is also at fault for not anticipating such a (no pun intended) black swan event and reinforcing the secondary barriers even more. All over the country, parents are having inexplicable accidents at zoos and children are ending up dead or injured as a result.
The tragedy at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2012 in which a 2-year-old was fatally mauled when his mother accidentally dropped him into the pen containing wild African dogs raises many of the same issues. Sometimes parents are simply unwise in how they physically handle their kids in potentially dangerous situations. Legally, the onus is always on zoos to plan for stupid, unwise and negligent parenting. When a drunk jumps into a lion’s den, he’s on his own.
It may also be time to seriously begin looking at the other elephant in the room when it comes to zoos. Perhaps the era of gorilla enclosures, no matter how humane, has passed. Harambe would have been better off in a nature preserve, far from distracted human parenting and an accidental death sentence.
Those who are most outraged by the boy’s parents should channel their misplaced rage toward ending gorilla incarceration at zoos altogether. That would be the practical, moral and decent thing to do.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.