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December 15th, 2017

Society

Gorilla empathy not matched for humans

Mitch Albom

By Mitch Albom

Published June 8, 2016

A silverback gorilla belongs in the Cincinnati Zoo as much as a human being belongs in an African bird's nest. But when a child got into that gorilla's enclosure last weekend, and the animal was killed to protect the child's life, we were suddenly arguing as if both sides had an equal say.

"The gorilla didn't have to die!" people protested. "It's inhumane. It's cruel."

It certainly is. But if you are worried about cruelty to gorillas, you should begin with them being in a zoo in the first place. Healthy debates can be had over the rights of man to imprison animals for exploration and profit.

But once a 450-pound ape is in a cage in a city, and a 3-year-old boy is suddenly -- however it happened -- in the hands of that ape and it is dragging him through water and throwing him, is there really time to argue over who's being unkind?

"You have human life and you have animal life," Jack Hanna, the well-known zookeeper and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, told CNN.

It should be that clear.

Amazingly, for some people, it is not.


The zoo staff and most experts agree that the child, who somehow crawled under a rail and through wires before falling 15 feet into the enclosure, was in imminent danger, and the only choice at that point was shooting the gorilla. A silverback gorilla could kill a child in an instant. A tranquilizer would have required 10 to 15 minutes to take effect.

"This is a dangerous animal," zoo director Thane Maynard told the media. "Looking back, we'd make the same decision. The child is safe."

Isn't that what matters most? That we're not talking about a little boy's funeral? Nonetheless, the hate and profanity directed at the child's mother has been ugly -- and typical. Social media trolls posted everything from "the animal is more important than your (expletive) kid" to "U should have been shot" according to reports that tracked it. And once it was learned that the family was African-American, racial slurs became part of the angry chorus.

Hundreds of thousands of people -- who weren't anywhere near the zoo -- signed online petitions calling to investigate the parents for negligence.

Never mind that an eyewitness, standing near the mother, detailed how she only turned away briefly and was mortified that her child was missing. Never mind that there is a 911 call that hears her clearly distraught and screaming, "He's dragging my son!" Never mind that kids squirt away from parents all the time -- at malls, at ballgames, at zoos.

From the reaction of people who weren't there, you'd have thought this mother hurled her child over a fence and went for a beer.


Since the incident, groups claiming to be about humane treatment have launched protests for the 17-year-old silverback known as "Harambe."

"Justice for Harambe" is the name of one site. One Facebook post shows a child who looks to be maybe 6 years old, smiling with his (I assume) mother and holding a sign that says "Keep Brats Out of Habitats."

We might need a new definition for "brat."

Because behind this supposed compassion for an animal is a shadow of something less admirable: a disdain for our fellow human beings. There is an immediate quick-boiling blame game that we revel in today (and can employ so quickly with the internet). Where does this animosity come from?

Why do we rail at each other? I appreciate compassion for animals. I just wonder why it sometimes seems partnered with a contempt for people.

Maybe it comes from our need to blame somebody. It's true, an implied social contract upon entering a zoo that we are safe from the animals and the animals are safe from us. In this case, neither was upheld, and a tragic ending occurred. There are real questions to be asked, like how a 3-year-old can navigate into a supposedly secure space.

But even that doesn't have to be done maliciously, with hate spitting across our lips. Criminal charges against the mother seem ludicrous. Equally ludicrous is acting as if the life of a zoo primate should be held on the same level as a child when the latter is in danger. If that sounds cruel, then get angry at why the gorilla is in the cage in the first place. Protest the idea of zoos if you like. But to spew anger in the name of kindness is terrible hypocrisy. If a poor animal had to be killed for fear of it lashing out, the least we could do is not do the same.


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