David Cogswell | June 08, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Gorillas in the Madness
Some stories, it is said, have no heroes. And some tragedies, I would suggest, unfold without any clear villains, just a random confluence of events that somehow leads to tragedy.
The death of a gorilla in Cincinnati last week was one of those situations. After a beautiful 400-pound lowland gorilla was shot and killed to protect a child that had fallen into its enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, the Internet erupted in a paroxysm of abhorrence and rage.
It was a horrible, absurd tragedy with a heavy cost, no winners and no clear villains. Obviously many would disagree with that statement, including those thousands who exploded onto social media to vent rage and cast blame after the incident.
Some wanted to see the zoo closed and its staff held accountable. Some wanted the mother of the child to be prosecuted. Others thought the mother should sue the zoo.
There was no limit to the rage that gushed onto the Internet. Some said the mother should have been shot.
The horror of the tragedy, the senselessness of it, the profundity of the loss and the sense of a close call with even greater tragedy all seemed to find their expression in a vast explosion of hate and blame. But through all the shades of feeling, the angry messages ricocheting and resonating throughout cyberspace, there was no clear target for the mountain of emotion.
Of course there is plenty of responsibility to be passed around. The mother of the child had to have been not watching long enough for the child to have climbed into the enclosure. But before we rush to cast blame perhaps we should admit to ourselves that it is highly unlikely that any parent has not had a similar lapse of attention that might have turned to tragedy if the cards had been stacked that way at the time.
What parent has not ever taken her eyes off her child long enough for something bad to happen? We are not living in a perfect world.
Yes, certainly it was an oversight on her part, but the negligence was certainly not on the order of the harm done. It was just an afternoon at the zoo and the mother's attention lapsed for a few critical moments.
What about the animal keepers who killed the gorilla? Could they have effectively warded off danger without destroying this great and precious animal? Who knows? But once again it is impossible to second guess them because the stakes were unthinkably high and events were taking place in real time. There was no way of knowing what could happen in the next second, and the seconds after that. They made a decision. The child is alive. It could have been much worse.
The life of the child had to be placed first. But the life of the gorilla was still a matter of great concern and its death is a huge tragedy.
There are differing opinions as to how the situation should have been dealt with. But it happened in real time, not with the luxury we have now in contemplating it after the fact as though it were a moment frozen in time that we can examine at our leisure.
There was no way of knowing if the child would have been killed unintentionally by the gorilla, which was also reacting to an unprecedented and highly emotional situation with human spectators reacting in panic on the sidelines of the enclosure.
Were there less lethal ways of dealing with the situation? Some guess that there were. But it’s impossible to be certain. And when a child's life and well-being are at stake, there is no room for wrong guesses.
And then there are questions about the design of the zoo itself. Certainly a zoo must be designed in such a way that it does not rely on the perfect conduct of the visitors. An enclosure can't be designed only for those responsible individuals who are going to conduct themselves intelligently. It must also keep the barrier between humans and animals impenetrable for people who break the rules, don't know the rules, make mistakes or are just misbehaving.
Is our society too accustomed to resorting to the gun to solve problems when less lethal measures might have been employed? Perhaps, but that’s a larger question and probably of little value when trying to gain some insight from this tragedy.
And shouldn’t that be our objective? Nothing will bring back the gorilla. The boy is safe, thank God. Is there anything we can learn from this monstrous mishap? Hopefully the breach can help zoo officials change the zoo environment so that such an incident can never happen again.
For me it brings into question the place of zoos in our rapidly evolving world. Old ways are being challenged on many fronts and many are not holding up to the pressure of rapid change in our world. Perhaps zoos are on the front lines of those challenges.
SeaWorld made the radical decision to end its killer whale shows. Social trends are moving away from the support of keeping animals in captivity.
I understand the purpose of zoos in past times when most people did not have the opportunity to travel far from their homes and had few opportunities to learn about nature. A zoo may have provided the only way that some people may ever see some of these wild animals.
But today we have easier travel than ever in our history. People of moderate means can actually go to Africa, India, Indonesia, Thailand and even America and see great animals in their natural state. And we have BBC Earth, National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and other media through which people can experience these animals in their natural habitat without leaving their living rooms.
I personally have never liked zoos. I could never shake off the overriding feeling of sorrow for the animals who are being imprisoned. Many of them find comfort in some kind of repetitive motion through which they can while away their lives of utter boredom and captivity. They live lives that are not like lives at all. The hunters cannot hunt. They just eat dead flesh they are given. They cannot travel. They live in limited, artificial environments. They sleep, wake, go through it all again. I find it tremendously depressing.
The primates, our close relatives, are intelligent and complex animals, and captivity drives them crazy. They have to find ways to express their natural inclinations in what is essentially a prison.
Zoos differ, obviously. Some create remarkably good environments for animals. Some actually rescue animals that would have died without their intervention. The Cincinatti Zoo seems to be one of the better ones. It is not a black-and-white situation. But I think we are moving beyond the time when zoos will serve the purpose they were created for and they will cease to make sense to us.
After being fortunate enough to travel and see great wildlife in their own natural environments, I have come to see zoos as so artificial that they don’t show us nature anyway. And what they do show is not worth the cruelty of keeping animals in captivity.
I’m not advocating that all the zoos be closed down. But I think over time their existence will fade away along with the reason for them.
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