The Gorilla Incident: To Judge or Not To Judge?

By now everyone knows that a gorilla name Harambe was killed at the Cincinnati zoo after a three-year-old boy slithered into his enclosure.  If you haven’t seen it, the video is crazy.  Apparently he joked with his mom that he was going to find his way into the moat, and when she was distracted he did just that.  The kid went under a rail, through wires and over the moat wall.  If he could have gone over the river and through the woods, he would have done that too.

If you aren’t a parent, you’re probably thinking that his mom was negligent.  I’m here to tell you that if there is such thing as an unstoppable force in this world, it’s a three-year-old who has made up their mind that they want to do something or go somewhere, regardless of the safety, legality or their parent’s will.

Predictably, everyone on the Internet is suddenly a gorilla expert and perfect parent.

I consider myself a very attentive parent, perhaps overly so.  The first thing I do, wherever we go as a family, is to scan the environs to determine where my kids might get into trouble.  My three-year-old, who we call “Tan Sierra” (from Fargo, Jerry’s getaway car) for her propensity to run away from us, always seems to find a way to put fear into me.  In the past month alone I can think of several situations where I simply turned my head for a moment and she found herself in harm’s way.  Those scenarios involved inspecting a hot stove, climbing up stairs on the outside of the railing and diving into a pool like she was Greg Louganis despite being a bad swimmer at best.  And those are just the ones that I can remember.  This is a kid who plays hide and seek without telling us she is playing hide and seek, sometimes in public.

A friend of mine made a brilliant comment on this entire Harambe scenario, “Predictably, everyone on the Internet is suddenly a gorilla expert and perfect parent.”  Could it be said any better than that?  And yes, I am a parent and have those biases, but I’m also a huge lover of gorillas.  The first 15 years of my (pathetic) life included hours of reading about gorillas and collecting their stuffed likenesses.  I had a closet that had jungle wall paper so that these inanimate objects could feel at home.  In my adult life, one of my biggest disappointments was finally making it to the Barcelona Zoo only to learn that Snowflake had died the season before.  If ever there were one, I’m an ape man.


A small sampling of my stuffed ape collection, passed on lovingly to the next generation of ape lovers. And yes, I realize they don’t wear sweaters, earrings, jerseys and boxing gloves in the wild.

So, was anyone really wrong in Cincinnati?  Should the mom not have turned her head?  Should the zoo have had an enclosure that was impenetrable?  Was killing Harambe to save the life of a human the right decision?

I had a chance to see silverbacks in the flesh on a recent trip to the National Zoo in DC.  They are intimidating and at times rough with each other.  Maybe Harambe was “protecting” this child in the end, but the kid is lucky to have survived getting rag dolled.  That’s a fact.  Killing the gorilla was unfortunately the only choice in the moment.  Imagine if they hadn’t killed the animal and the kid had his arm ripped off or worse?

Beyond that, shit happens despite all plans.  None of us have executed a flawless life.  As parents we need to be vigilant, but we’ll never be perfect.  Maybe the sacrifice of one gorilla in Cincinnati means that zoos everywhere reconsider all of their exhibits and they become safer for visitors and animals alike.  And of course there is the entire question of having zoos at all, which is too big of a topic for this space.

Judge the mom or the zoo or the kid if you have to but remember what Jesus and Bob Marley said (in that order), “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  Do a little research on that one (Matthew 7:1) and scholars believe that we aren’t being told not to judge, but that when we judge not to be hypocrites.  That’s pretty solid guidance regardless of what you believe.