February 22, 2024

A gorilla grabs your kid: should you shoot?

The smart money says No.

That bioethicists regard the lives of animals as more important than infants or disabled humans is a common complaint amongst their critics. The death of a silverback gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo serves as a test of this hypothesis.

Earlier this week Harambe, a 17-year-old male, grabbed a 4-year-old boy who had eluded his mother and scrambled into the enclosure. Zoo authorities ordered Harambe to be shot, fearing that he would injure or kill the child. The boy was unharmed, apart from bruises and scratches.

Harambe had been raised in captivity and was destined to be a stud for an endangered species. So his death was a minor setback for the future of gorilladom.

On social media the reaction to the incident was immediate and angry. An internet petition demanding “justice for Harambe” called upon authorities to charge the parents of the child with negligence. At last count it had secured 495,000 signatures. Criticism of the parents (whose names have not been released was savage: “That gorilla wouldve been a better parent than the mother” was a typical tweet. More extreme was “If your kid purposefully falls into a gorilla cage, you should just tell your kid goodbye. That’s called Darwinism.”

However, in the mainstream media, support for the staff of the zoo was nearly universal. The child’s safety was paramount; the choice was obvious. Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist, said in an extended comment on Facebook that the zoo staff faced a “horrible dilemma”. Even PETA (People for the ethical treatment of animals) did not denounce the decision.

What the incident did provoke was interest in the abolition of zoos. “Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but almost all die having never really experienced what it is to be a gorilla,” remarked columnist Andrew Revkin in the New York Times. And in Scientific American ecologist Mark Bekoff wrote:

Harambe is dead and the boy is alive. I’m very sad, and also very happy. A gorilla’s life was traded off because a human child was in danger. What needs to be done in the future to be sure that events like this never happen again? First, zoos need to stop breeding animals who are going to live in zoos for the rest of their lives. Zoos also should be turned into sanctuaries for the animals themselves. Over time there will be fewer and fewer captive animals and zoos as we know them can be phased out. And, the money that is saved as time goes on can be used to preserve populations of wild animals and their homes.

Outrage is amongst the things that the interest does best. Perhaps those bilious reactions show that many people have no understanding whatsoever of the travails of caring for young children. Elissa Strauss, Slate’s parenting expert, pleaded with the twitterati for some understanding:

Today’s mothers and fathers are constantly denounced as helicopter parents—micromanagers and overcoddlers of their children who will never learn how to be independent. The finger-pointing at the parents of the boy at the zoo suggests that there is no such thing as the right amount of parenting. Things go wrong because either we’ve done too little or done too much. Either way, it’s all our fault.

On balance, then, when push comes to shove, most serious people probably still back human life over the lives of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. 

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