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Morality People

Harambe and our hubris

One of the lessons we could learn from the killing of Harambe, the gorilla recently shot by Cincinnati Zoo staff, is that we humans are forgetting that not everything is under our control, and that it never could be.

We are not omniscient and omnipotent gods – all we can do is plan as best we can, and take reasonable precautions against unknown risks. And even when you do so, something could still go wrong, as ended up being the case on Saturday, when a child fell into this gorilla’s enclosure.

It’s easy, from the sidelines, to insist that the mother was negligent. Perhaps she was – but at the same time, the only way to guarantee the safety of your children is to keep them in a protective bubble at the end of a leash. In a padded room. Even if you’re careful, mistakes happen.

It’s easy to say that the zoo is at fault. But this is the only time this had ever happened to them since 1978, and it’s an incident that exposes a weakness in the enclosure security that they hadn’t known about until now, presumably after taking all reasonable precautions in enclosure design and maintenance.

It’s easy to choose sides, and say that it’s outrageous that an endangered animal had to die because of someone’s negligence, because why couldn’t they tranquilize it instead – even as expert after expert reminds you that a 400lbs gorilla would take a good few minutes to go down after a (successful) shot, which would give its agitation more than enough time to be channeled into an expression that kills the child.

We want winners and losers, heroes and people to blame. Some are taking blaming the mother so seriously that over 400 000 of them (more by the time you read this) want the parents to be “held accountable”, and tell us that this incident demonstrates a “negligence may be reflective of the child’s home situation”.

These things seldom stop with petitions, though. Mob justice ensues, and people are bullied on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Sometimes it’s not even the “right” person being bullied, but a namesake only, that some keyboard warrior for Harambe has discovered and intends to shame into abjection.

This was an accident with tragic consequences, which are sometimes unavoidable despite our best efforts. Everyone will learn from it, including – hopefully – the mother, whose immediate response was to thank God, rather than the game-ranger who actually (probably) saved her child.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe, a gorilla on the Internet (as far as most are concerned), they wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to joining any initiative aimed at saving western gorillas more generally.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe (at least the people who – like me – still eat meat), they won’t give a moment’s thought to the animal suffering they are responsible for, simply because they prefer a certain sort of food.

This desire for “justice” and for “shaming” is within our control. This lack of perspective where we think that we could have done better, and someone else is blameworthy – even though we know a fraction of the context – is within our control.

But knowing all possible eventualities, preparing for every possible risk, and making the perfect decision in the moment (rather than bloviating about what it was, in retrospect) is not something we can reasonably expect of ourselves, or anyone else.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “Harambe and our hubris”

When this incident first came to my attention it was as a result of seeing ugly tweets aimed at the mother. My reaction was, “How do you know the mother was negligent? You weren’t there. Stop with the nasty accusations!”

I spend lots of time in zoos, wildlife refuges, national and state parks, etc. I’ve been to the Cincinnati Zoo. It’s a very, very busy place and, I would assume, especially so on a holiday weekend. For those who are so keen on blaming the mother, this is what happens at animal enclosures particularly the really popular ones like gorillas. A large crowd surrounds the enclosure and everyone is trying to get a better look. People are looking at the animal in the enclosure and not what’s immediately next to them. When you’re looking straight ahead you won’t necessarily notice a small child standing nearby as they are not in your line of vision. And, as people move closer to the enclosure to get a better look, it’s really easy to separate a mother from her child. Children are also very excited by what they’re seeing and want to get a good look. Their height makes being nearest the enclosure wall the best place to be, so that’s where they try to position themselves.

I have often had children insert themselves between me and the enclosure wall while I’m taking pictures. I have to be careful when shooting not to accidentally step on them. Before repositioning myself for a different camera angle, I have to take a good look for children who may have gathered around me. This is particularly problematic for me as I usually shoot with a long lens, and kids can be just as fascinated by my lens as they are by the animals in the zoo. Parents usually know approximately where their kids are but not always precisely where their kids are in zoo crowd madness. I’ve had many parents apologize to me for their children having wandered off to look at my lens when they thought they were standing right next to them looking at the animal in the enclosure. It only takes a brief moment to lose one’s child in a crowd. And, it happens much more than people realize. This particular instance resulted in tragedy. It’s very sad! Vilification only makes this tragedy worse by proving how nasty people can be.

A bit more understanding of children and their unbounded curiosity would not go amiss instead of passing negative judgement on someone’s parenting skills. Parents apologize to me when their children “bother” me. They don’t need to apologize. I’m always happy to answer questions from curious children. In fact, I will remove my prescription eyepiece, reset the dioptric adjustment on my camera body, and let children get a very closeup look at the animals through my long lens if they show a real interest. All of the adults who are making nasty cracks need to remember what it’s like being a small child and how often children wander off to explore something which piques their curiosity. I don’t think bad things about parents whose children express that curiosity even if the child is not right by their parent’s side when asking me questions.

Great article.

Are you considering going vegan, to reduce the suffering of animals and the negative impact of animal agriculture on the planet?

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