Over the past week, there has been a great deal of media coverage of the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to kill a young resident of its Gorilla World exhibit, Harambe, after a four year old boy deliberately slipped past a fence and fell into a moat surrounding the great ape’s enclosure. Many of the comments online are filled with emotion and invective (see Twitter hashtag #justiceforharambe if you don’t believe me), either supporting or castigating the zoo for its actions. Some even lash out at the boy’s mother, criticizing her parenting abilities to the point of calling for social services to get involved. Others go even further and would have the child’s parents prosecuted under the state’s criminal law (for what offense I have no idea). The Cincinnati Police is supposedly investigating. (I love this! They can calm the fomenting rabble by agreeing to investigate while they know perfectly well that there is little they can do.)
I have no idea whether the zoo was right or wrong to kill Harambe. After all, I wasn’t there. Some of those who were on the scene describe Harambe dragging the child around and repeatedly banging his head on the concrete. Others point out that the child was examined at a hospital and was found to have suffered no serious injuries. So you can take your pick there. All I know is that if a 420 pound gorilla were to drag me around and repeatedly bang my head on concrete, I wouldn’t be here to write these words.
Supporters of Harambe have suggested that the zoo should have used a tranquilizer dart or should have distracted the gorilla with treats such as pineapple. Some say that the gorilla would have wreaked irreversible damage on the boy by the time a tranquilizer took effect, while others point out that the zoo allowed ten minutes to elapse before making its decision to use lethal force, time during which a tranquilizer could have been taking effect.
As you no doubt realize by this point, I am more than a bit amused by the forceful arguments in support of or in opposition to the Cincinnati Zoo’s action. That’s the wonderful thing about a free press in the age of the internet: Everyone gets to express his or her opinion, vastly enriching the marketplace of ideas.
We are all such good Monday morning quarterbacks, now aren’t we? This is what my mother always referred to as “20/20 hindsight.” Unfortunately, those faced with an emergency don’t have the luxury of time to allow the case to be argued in the court of public opinion. We see this all too often when police make a split-second decision to use deadly force in order to protect themselves or others from being killed. First walk a mile in that guy’s moccasins, then come talk to me.
As for the mother’s culpability, I cannot escape my legal training that has taught me to argue both sides of the question.
Legally, a non-human animal is considered chattel, mere property. This has been the common law at least since Blackstone, Coke and the other great British legal commentators published their treatises centuries ago. As a supporter of animal rights, I am not happy about this fact, but there it is. Accordingly, if I were representing the Cincinnati Zoo in civil litigation against the mother, I would argue that her negligence resulted in the loss of valuable zoo property and would demand restitution forthwith.
Just think of the approbation and liability that the zoo would have suffered if it had allowed Harambe to kill the boy! The lawyers would have descended, demanding millions of dollars in damages, far more than the property value of a gorilla. One internet commenter pointed out that the value of a boy is so much more than that of a gorilla because the latter has such limited capabilities, while the former could be the discoverer of the next cure for a deadly disease. That is certainly a possibility. Typically, however, the courts greatly limit the value of a child’s life, as it cannot be known whether he would have been the next Einstein or a criminal in prison for life. While a gorilla is unable to discover the cure for cancer, neither is it able to engage in genocide or embezzle the retirement funds of thousands.
Now, if I were representing the boy’s mother, I would argue that Harambe’s enclosure represented an attractive nuisance to a young child and that the zoo therefore has no one to blame for its losses but itself. Think of it: You’re four years old. Ooo! A big gorilla to play with! And water to splash in on the way! Your mom is momentarily distracted with your brothers and sisters. What would you do? Uh-huh, thought so!
In its defense, zoo director Thane Maynard claims that its fences at Gorilla World are more than adequate, that they have been approved by the relevant governing bodies, and that they have never experienced a problem before in the nearly forty years that the exhibit has been open. Kind of what I would call an “innocent until proven guilty” defense. But Maynard also admits that “the trouble with barriers is that, whatever the barrier is, some people can get past it.” Uh-huh. Little people, for example. Like, uh, maybe a four year old? And just what audience do zoos cater to anyway? Families! Children! School groups! It’s fun for all ages, it’s educational, bring the kids for a day out at the zoo!
This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Rather than second guessing the zoo’s on-the-spot decision, we need to step back and take a bigger picture approach. Let’s admit that safety considerations are just one of many reasons that animals should not be maintained in captivity. Wild animals belong in the wild. And as long as the courts refuse to extend the writ of habeas corpus to non-humans, we will continue to experience unfortunate incidents involving the death of captive animals or the humans who come into contact with them.
After all, boy and gorilla were each doing what comes naturally. The fault is not theirs, but ours.