The Shooting of Harambe the Gorilla is Part of a Larger Problem

13164473_10207299021212992_8736358767459553017_nLet me offer you this one question quiz to help you determine whether you are a knucklehead:

Have you ever loaded a bison into the trunk of your car because you thought it was cold?

If you answered no, congratulations! You are not a knucklehead.

If you answered yes, you must be one of the two recent visitors to Yellowstone who did precisely this.

A couple of unnamed tourists, a father and son, recently loaded a baby bison into the trunk of their SUV and drove it to a ranger station. They were afraid the newborn animal would freeze to death. It was 40 degrees out. Not even water freezes at 40 degrees.

After being handled by its “helpers” the baby bison’s mother rejected it and rangers eventually had to euthanize the calf.

What can one say in the face of such utter lack of understanding, in the face of such total disconnection from nature, from the world? People who think wild animals freeze to death in 40-degree weather ought not be allowed to drive around the national parks unsupervised. Look at the damage they can do.

This same ignorance has been fully on display in the wake of the shooting of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. A three-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure and, to save the child’s life, officials shot and killed the ape.

Predictably, the outrage has been over-the-top. A lot of people live for these moments, moments that allow them to combine their need to demonstrate moral superiority with massive public displays of emotion. Just look at the picture below:

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People have been blaming the kid’s parents. People have been blaming the zoo. People ought to be blaming themselves or, at least, the culture in which we live.

Looking at these two incidents together, two important points emerge.

First, zoos provide a clear example of our deeper problem.

Teaching our kids about nature is important to my wife and me. So, we spend a lot of time at zoos. It doesn’t take long to notice that most people aren’t there to learn anything. Most people who walk through the gates just think they’re going to an amusement park with animals. The result is that zoos are often unpleasant. There is little silence, little room for contemplation, almost no space for serious observation.

Kids run wild. Many, many times we’ve seen entire exhibits descended upon by groups of unruly, poorly supervised children who have little interest in what’s before them. Given this environment, it’s not surprising that a kid at one of the busiest zoos in the nation slipped into an enclosure.

You can criticize the parents. Had they been watching the boy, he wouldn’t have crawled in, he wouldn’t have fallen, and the Cincinnati zoo would have a living male gorilla named Harambe instead of a dead one.

But, if you criticize the parents, you’ve also got to criticize the general cultural ethos that tells people children require less supervision than they actually do. Especially, in the presence of wild animals. That kid’s parents were just doing what I have seen a million other parents do at the zoo: assume that everything is perfectly safe.

Second, the assumption of perfect safety is built on another assumption clearly on display at the zoo. Spend time at any zoo, or even at any local park, and you will see that people assume that the world is made for them, that the whole world exists only as an entertainment, a big show which owes them a happy ending.

When zoo officials shot Harambe, they failed to supply the requisite happy ending. That’s why the women in the picture above are crying. Their tears aren’t so much about the loss of the gorilla as they are about being reminded of how the world actually is.

Looking at animals in a zoo, ought to move us to contemplation, ought to help us to realize our place in creation, ought to bring us into deeper contact with reality. These two stories, the bison in the trunk and the shooting of Harambe, show us how far we are as a society from those ideals.

Many people are so protected from the realities of life that they cannot understand that bad things happen, that not every tragedy can be avoided. They cannot imagine that their own well-intentioned actions could be the cause of such tragedies. They know neither themselves nor the world.

These are people in desperate need of silence. They are people who need to turn off the television, skip the next round of shopping at the mall, and make contact with reality. Our whole society is dying for want of a long, serious walk in the woods. Take one today, but be warned-anything can happen-because, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, the world is not a totally safe space.

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14 responses

  1. Nice post. I also think we’ve gotten out-of-hand with the blaming for who is “wrong” in this scenario. There is no one “thing” to blame. It’s all of our faults. Why can’t we just say, “That is terrible,” both for the child and the gorilla?
    I also relate to how National Parks and Zoos have become overrun by people who really don’t appreciate nature and want to understand it. It seems like Average Joe just wants to record something “wild,” and preferably violent, happen that is worthy enough for several youtube hits.

  2. From another perspective as a farmer, my ex-wife couldn’t understand the serious responsibility of having to care for animals. You HAVE to check on them and care for them regardless of the weather conditions. These are living creatures that are dependent on your care and protection, they are not yet another item you can throw away when you’re tired of it.

    • Yes, Dale. I, too, have farm animals (cows, pigs, chickens, bee hives) as well as several dogs and cats. Their safety in weather extremes is my first priority. We had a couple of weeks 2 winters ago when the polar vortex put us into temps ranging from -10 to -45 degrees Fahrenheit. I made rounds every couple of hours, moved animals in to barns and other enclosures, broke ice when the tank heaters would not keep up, enclosed dog houses in bales of straw, etc. I would do it all again, gladly. Your point is well taken that people need to educate themselves before committing to having animals!

  3. “Many people are so protected from the realities of life that they cannot understand that bad things happen” well said. Most people live in their comfort zones in bubbles and ignore how the world really is until it hits them right in the face.

  4. Very good column. We’ve dicussed this in the wildlife community for ages now. Something is very very wrong.

  5. I have been saying that the major blame in Cincinnati was not the parents, not the zoo, but the crowd that kept screaming and agitating the gorilla more and escalating the situation. People no longer know how to act around animals. People no longer seem to comprehend that they are not humans with human emotions and that they don’t react like humans.

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