Unless you live in a sensory deprivation chamber, you know that a few days ago, a little boy slipped into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, prompting zoo officials to shoot and kill one of the gorillas, a 17-year old male named Harambe, in the enclosure. What ensued in the larger society looked something like this:

And so we braced ourselves for the life cycle of these things: internet rage mob, followed by the rage mob against the rage mob. Shortly thereafter, people would start posting on Facebook about how they are tired of hearing about the gorilla, already, and you would know it was running its course, without any real understanding ever taking place.

But I’m hoping this one is shaping up differently than other internet outrages, like the killing of Cecil the lion. The initial anger against the allegedly negligent mother  who let her kid get into the gorilla enclosure, and the zoo officials who shot the gorilla, was strong and swift and hot. But then, very quickly, people started to push back. Experts weighed in on the zoo’s decision in a nuanced way. Other commentators reminded us that more of us have been parents of mischievous kids than trophy hunters of lions. Empathy kicked in. I was heartened to see that. Internet rage culture is toxic.

But the danger, of course, is that once the anger is gone, the questions this incident poses will go away too, and we will all move on to the next outrage. It’s a difficult balancing act, because though we can rarely have a productive social discussion at the height of rage and sadness, those emotions are precisely the ones that power the advancement of knowledge and understanding, when handled in a healthy way. The problem with the Harambe incident is that it offers too many easy marks on which to pin blame, and thereby distract from healthy discussion.

“People suck” is a very easy shelter for an environmentalist in the face of things like this. But it solves nothing: Okay, you’re right. People suck. Now what do we do? And we are back to square one, where we must think and talk and consider. We have to ask questions, about zoos, about species loss, about the real lives of animals, whether they are in captivity or in their natural habitat. And we should listen to people who know something about those topics, instead of digging in to our reflexive positions and our blame.

Jerry Stones, the man who hand-raised Harambe from birth, and who is deeply grieving the death of his friend, said:

“Ninety-nine percent of people, on both sides of the fence, pro or con, don’t have a clue what they’re talking about and I’m not going to comment on it. I wasn’t there and they weren’t either,” said Stones.

This makes sense to me. Right or wrong, the deed is done. Even if the zoo could have done more, zoo officials are fallible human beings who were faced with a difficult situation. So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s take down the fence and just see if there is anything to be learned for the future, instead of staking out positions on either side of it. There are a lot of clicks to be had in encouraging people to do that, but not a lot of understanding or knowledge. Anger, I think, is what leads people to stake out those positions, to stare at each other through the fence of righteousness. But the shrinks say that anger is a secondary emotion, and what’s under anger is always hurt. And that reminds me of the other thing Jerry Stones said:

“An old man can cry, too.” He was a special guy in my life. Harambe was my heart. It’s like losing a member of the family.”

This brought tears to my eyes. Stones’ words remind us: This was a loss. A greater loss for those who knew Harambe intimately, like Stones, but still a loss for anyone who loves animals. Losses must be acknowledged, or they fester. And blame is an easy anesthetic. It protects us from feeling in the moment, but it shortcuts hope because it shortcuts learning and understanding. It keeps us looking through the fence at our opponents, instead of asking questions.

I hope that people can get under their anger to that loss, and then let that tenderness lead them toward consideration and greater understanding. Animals and wildlife depend on it.


Commenting note: Please try to keep comments blame-free, and with an understanding that nothing about this situation is easy or simple.






18 thoughts on “Gorillas, rhetorical fences and the anesthetic of blame

  1. Jennifer,

    Once more your eloquent writing and thoughtful positioning of viewpoints have made this a post which I have read and re-read. It touched me on several levels. Prompting me to consider how I process emotions.

    Thank you

    P.S. When the news of Harambe hit the web, I thought of you and your wonderful photos from the St. Louis Zoo.

  2. I completely agree. It is a loss for all involved. I live in a big city, which means there’s a big zoo. It’s beautiful, and their ability to help those species’ whose survival now depends solely on human intervention, has made great progress. I am a parent as well and I see both sides of what is being mourned over/thankful for/needing change. Honestly, your writing is the very first that I’ve read to completion. Humans need to blame (typically) and when there is no true malicious fault-humans get malicious. It’s such a loss, and I hope this brings out the big $$$ donors for conservation, change.

    1. I would love to think it would. Or at least push the awareness level up one more painfully obtained notch.

      Which zoo is your hometown zoo? (We may have discussed this already, but I’ve slept since then!)

      1. St. Louis Zoo. It’s a great place. I think the children’s area is one all zoos should have. It gives them freedom to explore, learn and appreciate! There’s classes year round. My favorite are the bugs!

      2. Yes, we have talked about this! I love the St. Louis Zoo; I fell in love with one of their gorillas. And yes ,the children’s area is wonderful.Naked mole rats and sloths!

      3. Yessss! And as always, that giant bunny my kids all call by a different name. It enjoys the potted plant 💜 The gorilla exhibit there is just amazing!!!

  3. I’m disappointed that the reaction to this situation doesn’t include acknowledgement that zoo staff heroically saved two of three gorillas that day. It seems that shouldn’t be overlooked.

    I’m also disappointed that the pendulum is swinging so far in the opposite direction. I’m seeing many posts that approach the situation from a “accidents are accidents–there is no one to blame” approach. That seems pretty short-sighted to me. I believe the zoo had to take the action it did, but I certainly hope (and am convinced) that there was a meeting there on the day after the event to analyze the barriers that permitted a 4-year-old admittance. It is a zoo, after all, crawling with such energetic creatures. A three-foot fence seems like an attractive nuisance if there ever was one. And hopefully the event also serves as a reminder that those of us who are in charge of monitoring small children should take that responsibility very seriously. To shrug it off as an episode of “shit happens–that’s all it was” is to lose an opportunity to learn from the tragedy. No, we don’t need online vigilante blame games, but we do need to be prepared to do better in the wake of these incidents. That might be the only value they have.

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