Familiar scenes in my house:
“How did you do on your chemistry exam, dearest daughter?” say I.
Her opening remark, “Everybody got a horrible grade.”
“I don’t care what everyone else did.”
My goals in these conversations are twofold. First, I want her to take responsibility for her outcome. Second, I want her to identify strategies that can help her achieve her goals; changes she can make in preparation for next time. None of this has to do with shaming or punishing her; I am trying to help her evaluate and adjust as necessary.
Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve been reading about the gorilla incident. In case all your internet devices have been broken, here’s my summary. A preschool aged boy got into a gorilla exhibit. A young male gorilla who was an important part of a conservation effort for his endangered species, took an interest in him. Zoo officials tried to call him off but he didn’t come. After about 10 minutes, they shot and killed him to rescue the boy.
The internet reaction has been both predictable and surprising — death threats against the boy’s mother, assumptions that she’s a member of some mythical self-absorbed generation who put her child in harm’s way because she was taking selfies and posting on Facebook, armchair experts in gorilla behavior, people who hate zoos in general, and, of course, vile racists.
In reaction to these folks comes the holier than thou crowd who refuses to judge the kid’s mother because she was obviously at wit’s end dealing with a child who won’t listen, apologists who claim this is just how young boys behave, people wanting to air their own dirty laundry about all the times and precarious situations in which they misplaced their own children, and those who call this nothing more than a tragic accident.
And this, my friends, has been going on for days and days and days.
Time out. Back to my chemistry exam approach. Let’s look for the lessons in the situation, not for ways we can shame, punish, or otherwise prove our superiority.
I am a Cincinnatian who spent many days at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens as a member when my kids were little (they are now teenagers and Kings Island is more their speed). My kids have been to summer camps there. I think it’s a wonderful place to teach kids about the breadth and depth of nature and ecology. I get that some people feel like putting animals on display for our entertainment offends some, but I believe that their larger mission is noble and that they engender a connection between children and nature. Shooting the gorilla was no doubt a difficult decision made to keep a child safe.
When I watch the videos of Harambe interacting with the child, it does not seem as if he was trying to harm him in the ten minutes they were together. I think that’s what makes this situation hard for people to accept. Indeed, a 400 pound gorilla could have inflicted lethal damage quickly and other than a concussion and minor scratches, this boy was unharmed. People speculate that the crowd spooked him and he was trying to protect the kid. Maybe that’s true. But he didn’t listen when they tried to call him off either and the situation could have turned very, very quickly. His death is very sad but, again, I trust that zoo officials did what they had to do.
Want to help gorillas? The Zoo has some ideas.
And I can’t get away without talking about the mother. Do I even need to tell you that the death threats toward her and those who share her name are wrong? But so are the folks who say this was just an accident. When you take your child to the zoo, your number one job is to keep them out of the gorilla exhibit. In the thirty-eight years this exhibit has been open, millions of high energy kids have been through there. But only one has managed to slip though a fence, crawl though some bushes, and fall 10 or 15 feet into a moat.
This situation is, without a doubt, the mother’s fault. She failed to adequately supervise her child. The end.
Note well: I am not suggesting the mother needs to be punished or shamed or thrown in jail or lose custody of her children or (my favorite) buy the zoo a new gorilla. There is certainly an argument to be made that she has already suffered the natural consequences of her actions. Beyond that, we have systems in place to sort this all out and mete out justice. Whether she is systemically held accountable has little to do with this matter of responsibility.
There are lessons to be learned — A stark reminder of the importance of being able to manage your kids. An opportunity for the zoo to revisit its safety plans. A lesson that nature, even nature on display for our entertainment, is still wild and largely uncontrollable.
As far as the extreme reactions on the internet… well let’s just say that I don’t think we are doing the moral arc of the universe any favors these days.
Harambe was magnificent, no doubt. And his death was avoidable. But I’m also happy that this child didn’t die. Can’t we leave it there?