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Harambe the Gorilla, a Child’s Life, and the Blame Game

Photo by Tim Cummins

Published in ChicagoNow, June 1, 2016

A young child’s life versus a gorilla’s? An easy decision for me. Don’t get me wrong. I respect all living creatures. And despite how much they thrill my grandkids, I am not sure gorillas belong in zoos. But to all of the folks out there who need someone to blame and know they can’t really blame a four-year-old – stop the bullying. Leave the parent of this child and the zoo alone.

The incident happened on May 28, and by Memorial Day afternoon, more than 138,000 people had signed a petition calling for the parent of the child to be held responsible for the death of Harambe, a 17-year-old male silverback gorilla. Mourners attended vigils for the ape, and makeshift memorials sprung up. The gorilla soon had his own hashtag – #JusticeForHarambe – trending on Facebook.

Some argued that the Cincinnati Zoo should have had a better protective barrier around the gorilla habitat, even though the exhibit had just passed a safety inspection. Others speculated that the 400-pound gorilla was not likely to have hurt the child, even though witnesses saw the gorilla drag the boy across the exhibit.

Zookeepers and primate specialists explained that there was no alternative to killing Harambe at that point. A gorilla his size could have crushed the boy, even if he didn’t mean to harm him. Using a tranquilizer would have panicked the animal before it took effect, also resulting in the child’s death. The only argument that made sense was questioning the ethics of housing wild animals at zoos in the first place.

Blaming the zoo was bad enough, but when the focus of people’s anger turned to the boy’s mother, that was a step too far in my book. Accidents are unfortunate, yet we all know they happen. Why must someone always be blamed and shamed? Perhaps the mother had too many children to manage, but she did tell the child he could not go into the exhibit. Anyone with a young child knows it just takes a second of inattention for a child to get into trouble. Also, a child can get hurt even when a parent is watching in horror. Most parents can recount the helpless feeling of a child falling off a piece of playground equipment right before their eyes.

I just heard a woman on a liberal political talk-radio show attack the mother for having a poorly disciplined child because he ignored her warning not to jump into the exhibit. There was talk of spanking and strict punishments. The host agreed that the mother was negligent, even though he confessed he had no children of his own. Yet it made sense to him that the mother was to blame and good old-fashioned discipline was indeed the answer. The bullying continued and I changed the station in disgust.

Anyone who knows me would likely describe me as an overly careful parent and grandparent, bordering on neurotic. But let me confess a few of my lapses as a parent.

  • I allowed someone I didn’t know very well to carpool my son home from preschool and told her to drop him off at a friend’s house instead of at my new house. She let him out on the sidewalk of the new house and drove away. Yes, she was wrong and I stopped the carpool. But still, it was my responsibility to make sure my children were safe and I should have reminded her of the change in plans.

  • When I was changing her baby sister’s diaper, my three-year-old unlatched the gate at the top of the basement stairs and tumbled down them. Maybe the latch was defective. I don’t remember. But it was my responsibility to make sure my children were safe.

  • And the worst confession of all: I almost lost my 7-year-old in the Old City of Jerusalem. Yes, there were six adults walking with three kids, and I assumed she was with her grandmother and great aunt. Yes, adults can be distracted by conversation and sightseeing long enough to allow a child to walk straight ahead when everyone else has turned left onto a side street. But it was my responsibility to make sure my children were safe.

I get how easy it would be for a parent to take her eyes off a child, especially when she is watching other children. I’m sure she feels beyond terrible and knows that little boy was her responsibility. But here’s the thing. Most parents have done similar things. They just haven’t suffered such an enormous consequence. And they certainly haven’t been targets of folks who feel they must blame and bully people for every awful thing that occurs. Apparently, many folks can’t accept that sometimes, bad things just happen.

This incident took place on Memorial Day weekend when most people were shopping or having barbecues or taking their kids to the zoo. The holiday was also a time for remembering all of the people who gave their lives in our seemingly endless wars. Did the freedom they died for include our right to express our indignation over the unfortunate chain of events that ended up killing a gorilla via hashtags and petitions and bullying a parent on radio talk shows and social media? I guess it did, but the need for some to use this precious freedom to blame and shame trivializes their sacrifice.


by Laurie Levy
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