When I first learned about the Cincinnati Zoo’s incident involving a gorilla who was shot to death after a three-year-old boy fell into its enclosure, my reactions and opinions swung quickly from outrage to support to outrage and then support and some outrage again.
I care very deeply about animal rights. I want Sea World shut down. I want everyone to stop eating meat. I want animals in zoos only if they could not survive in the wild and need a sanctuary. Zoos aren’t perfect, but I believe they can be and are vital to inspiring young minds to want to take care of all creatures on this planet.
So my heart broke that an animal (any animal, no matter how majestic or endangered or just-like-us) was put to death over an avoidable situation.
How could this happen? How could the child have gotten in there? Couldn’t they have used tranquilizers? Why did the gorilla have to die because of mistakes humans made?
Then I felt incredibly guilty for feeling that way because, lucky me, it wasn’t my son who was in the enclosure.
When I took a step back and thought about the experience and put my own child in the enclosure with the 400+ pound male gorilla, the answer of what should happen in that situation became clear. Not only would I condone the actions made by the zoo response team, I would gladly pull the trigger myself.
That’s right, my vegan hippie heart would not think twice about ending the gorilla’s life if my son’s life was in danger. Yes, maybe a tranquilizer could’ve solved the problem peacefully (although experts have weighed in and say this likely would not have been the case). And maybe the gorilla was trying to protect the boy (which has also been heavily disputed). But if it’s your child in the cage with a gorilla, you don’t gamble on “maybe.” While I believe we must protect animals and we should do everything we can to do them no harm, human lives must always matter more. Because what if that was your child? Does your child matter more to you than an endangered gorilla?
Every person who is saying the situation should have played out differently should imagine if it was their own child who was being helplessly dragged around by an unpredictable animal. The mother in the middle of this scandal spent ten minutes, TEN MINUTES, watching this go on before something was done about it. That must have felt like an eternity. She probably got down on her knees and thanked God once the animal was killed and her child was returned to her. Just because it wasn’t our child, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still rejoice with his mother that he is safe.
And now the mother faces criticism (from people who weren’t witnesses) for “not watching her child” and “letting this happen.” I don’t have a three-year-old, but I have a two-year-old, and in my experience, two-year-olds are incredible escape artists. Kids are clever. Kids are curious. Kids are fearless. You can be looking right at them and they can quickly accomplish acrobatics you had no idea were possible all in an effort to do something that has an excellent chance of killing themselves. I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve read from witnesses and the mother herself, she looked away for a minute. A minute. You’re not an irresponsible mom if you look away for a minute. She trusted the enclosure would keep him safe, but it didn’t. She was just being a mom and he was just being a wild, reckless, fearless, disobedient (read: normal) little boy.
To the zoo response team, thank you for acting only in the service of saving the boy’s life. Thank God you were not one of the ones who would be quick to judge the mother and instead “let this play out because it was her own fault” (yes, someone on the Internet actually said that). It must have broken your hearts to do what you did, as you no doubt respected and admired Harambe. I hope someone like you will be there if my son is ever in danger.
To the boy’s mother, I am so sorry people are judging you based on your worst day. I am so sorry you have to hear about all the things you should have done differently. I am so sorry there’s a petition to hold you responsible and investigate the child’s “home environment” (seriously). I am so sorry that some people have never been around a toddler or two and can’t understand how these things can happen. I’m so sorry everyone is calling your parenting skills into question, instead of questioning the serious design flaws of a penetrable ape enclosure. I am so sorry that people are indifferent to the fact that your son is not in a grave, but is safe at home with his family where he belongs.
I was not there. I don’t know exactly what went on, but neither do most people who are calling for the mother to be responsible. Let the investigation take place. Let the mother be innocent until proven guilty. And instead of doing what we always do and vilifying a mother who made an innocent mistake, let’s instead turn our attention to making all animal enclosures completely safe from a person of any age being able to break the barrier, even if that means we don’t get an unobstructed view. It seems a toddler had an easier time getting close to a giant gorilla than I would have getting close to pseudoephedrine. I don’t care if the mom was watching closely or looked away for a moment, there shouldn’t be a chance in hell her child could break through safety barriers to get to the gorilla. If you’re a gorilla enclosure designer and your fortress was penetrated by a three-year-old, your gorilla enclosure designing days should be over.
It’s no wonder we’re stressed to the max trying to be perfect parents if we know one oversight can turn us into a target of Internet rage. So we’re not supposed to be helicopter parents, but we’re not supposed to ever let things like this happen? Which is it? We can’t do both. We either have our children strapped down and on leashes 24/7, or we carry on and know that sometimes, things can go very wrong.
I hope that everyone who has signed that awful petition who has children can show some empathy and forgiveness towards the Harambe mom. I hope that we can give her space and time to recuperate from this traumatic experience that will haunt her forever. I hope that every mother who is doing their best can somehow let her know that a bad day does not make you a bad mom.