Gorilla empathy not matched for humans

by | Jun 5, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 2 comments

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 zookeeeper and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, told CNN.

It should be that clear.

Amazingly, for some people, it is not.

Unbelievable outrage

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 from the agitated gorilla, and the only choice at that point was shooting the gorilla to death. 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,” Cincinnati 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 today 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 for authorities to investigate the parents for negligence.

A national radio host — who also lives more than a thousand miles away — wanted the woman jailed and even suggested she shouldn’t have kids.

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.

Why so much hate?

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 so much? 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 for everything. It’s true that there’s 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 seems ludicrous, although many have called for them. 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.


  1. mercedes3

    A case of triple jeopardy. Unfortunately, the most hateful and negative comments from social media are the ones that get top billing. The first few comments like that attract some people who like to out-do each other with their words.
    I was not there, but I think it was handled appropriately in a situation of making split-second decisions.
    You are right-on again Mitch, is it right to cage up animals far from their natural habitats in the first place?
    Oh, and God must be thinking, “Just when I thought I had seen it all……”
    I think judgment day is going to be a very long day. But we will find out who was right.

  2. Theresa Ramus

    I agree with you on this. Such a shame that the child got into the hands of the gorilla in the first place. For a situation such as this the zoo made the best decision that it could. Yes I am sure that it is hard for these animals to be in a zoo to begin with. The child’s life is top priority. It was a shame that there wasn’t anything more effective that they could of used that would of knocked out the gorilla immediately. Based on the information given they did what they had to do.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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