Fast-moving events left no time for philosophy
Part III of a three-part series. See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla; Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old; And the lesson from Harambe’s death is? Well, it’s not to blame mom.
As the Harambe case developed, the events in the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit moat on May 28, 2016 left little if any room for engaging in the sort of quasi-philosophical discussion that followed for days online. The zoo staff had to act, and act fast, before Harambe, already swinging an injured four-year-old by the leg, dashed the child’s head against the concrete moat wall, killing him as the Los Angeles Zoo chimpanzee Ripley killed a chimp infant on June 26, 2012.
Neither the U.S. Endangered Species Act nor the U.S. Animal Welfare Act zoo regulations trumps centuries of jurisprudence and moral reasoning holding that when human life is jeopardized by an animal, or any assailant, the first duty of first responders is to save the life of the individual at risk of being killed.
Had the Cincinnati Zoo staff done otherwise, judging the life of a highly endangered gorilla and their own leading gate attraction to be worth more than that of a four-year-old human boy, they might not just have faced a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from the victim’s family; they might also be facing charges for manslaughter or negligent homicide.
As matters stand, the Cincinnati Zoo may be fined for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act safety provisions.
“Failed both the public & Harambe”
“The Cincinnati Zoo failed both the public and Harambe by maintaining an enclosure which allowed a member of the public to gain access to a potentially dangerous animal,” alleged Michael Budkie, executive director of the Cincinnati-based organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now.
Budkie, Psychology Today blogger and ethologist Marc Bekoff, PETA, and many other commentators took the opportunity to argue that the biggest issue raised by the Harambe case is whether animals belong in zoos at all.
But whether animals belong in zoos, or whether zoos should even exist, is somewhat academic when zoos do in fact exist, with nowhere else appropriate to send animals for whom no suitable sanctuaries exist; no adequate mechanisms exist to fund the creation of sanctuaries; and return to the wild is not possible, either.
The chief aspect of this discussion with a basis in reality is the question of whether animals unsuited to life in zoos, such as gorillas, should continue to be bred in captivity––as Harambe will be, since sperm was recovered from his remains and frozen for future use.
“Mob demands that someone pay”
Most of the public outrage, meanwhile, was directed not at the Cincinnati Zoo, but at mother Michelle Gregg––especially after media disclosed that she had four children with Deonne Dickerson, 36, who had an extensive criminal record associated with drug use as a youth, but had not been charged with any offenses since 2006. Both African-Americans, Gregg and Dickerson both have now held responsible jobs for several years each.
“Even before the details were clear, or before the experts chimed in, people around the web quickly decried the gorilla’s killing and the events that led up to it. But now we are reaching the next — and scary — phase of these kinds of stories,” wrote German Lopez of Vox.com, “in which an internet mob demands that someone pay for the death.”
“Perceived lack of remorse”
Observed Vox.com colleague Alex Abad-Santos, “Gregg’s perceived lack of remorse (she didn’t mention Harambe’s death),” in a Facebook post thanking the Cincinnati Zoo staff and God that her son survived, “has garnered an outpouring of online hate. There are now online petitions (one has 47,000-plus signatures; another has 317,000-plus) asking for Child Protective Services to investigate Gregg for neglect.
“There’s so much vitriol out there against Gregg that another Michelle Gregg has been harassed by people online. There are also unfounded rumors that Gregg is planning to sue the zoo, which would only build the hate against her.
“The overwhelming desire to punish Gregg, the need for ‘justice,’ the threats and harassment that Gregg (and other people who share her name) are receiving, the necessity to point out irresponsibility — is much more reflective of our own behavior and shortcomings than Gregg’s,” Abad-Santos assessed.
“Anger lacking in other cases”
Agreed yet another Vox.com commentator, Dylan Matthews, “This kind of anger is lacking in other cases of animal suffering, cases where there isn’t a real trade-off between the animal’s life and a greater good. If you’re a meat eater mourning Harambe’s death,” Matthews wrote, “it’s worth taking a second to ponder your involvement in the torture and death of other animals that pose no threat to anybody.”
Concluded Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “The moral debate over how to handle this situation reminds me of the many dining-hall discussion scenarios I heard thrown my way three decades ago when I started an animal advocacy group [at Yale University]. If you were in a lifeboat, and there was room for a drowning person only if you threw your dog overboard, would you?
“Seldom do these ‘lifeboat’ scenarios play out in real time,” Pacelle blogged. “I do think it’s important to note that for the vast majority of human killings of animals, there is no such moral dilemma. Instead, there is still the mass killing of animals for sport or entertainment or fur fashion or palate preference.
“Clear moral choices”
“So, yes, let’s grieve for Harambe,” Pacelle concluded. “Let’s recognize though, that zoo officials took this action with extreme regret, and in crisis mode. The scenarios we confront every day of our lives are not lifeboat scenarios. They do involve clear moral choices and common sense and common decency.”
Pacelle at the White Oak Conference on Zoos & Animal Protection in 1994 called for ending captive breeding of wildlife and phasing out zoos, except to the extent that zoos could operate as wildlife sanctuaries, and has continued to advocate that perspective.
See also: The myth & mystery of Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla; Myth: that the gorilla Harambe “protected” fallen four-year-old; And the lesson from Harambe’s death is? Well, it’s not to blame mom.