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.


Also published on Medium.