When I went to Yellowstone back in 2004, I recall being disturbed by a story I heard about how, in years past, park officials allowed the feeding of wild bears. It was great for entertaining tourists, but predictably, some bears eventually became more aggressive due to losing their fear of people and expecting handouts. The park decided to handle this problem by shooting at least some of those bears. Even at age thirteen, this seemed backwards to me. Weren’t those bear attacks the fault of people who thought it was a good idea to feed them? Why were the bears the ones who got punished? I was reminded of this story by two separate incidents, one in Chile and one in Cincinnati, in which people climbed into animal enclosures in zoos. In Chile, a man apparently tried to commit suicide by hopping into a lion enclosure. In Cincinnati, a three-year old child got away from his parents long enough to get into a gorilla enclosure. In both cases, these people ended up in serious danger–what a surprise!–and officials at the zoos responded by killing the animals. It’s the same old story: humans do something foolish, this puts them in danger from an animal, and the animal gets punished. Animals are dangerous. Everyone should know this. When a wild animal is in a zoo, they are kept in an enclosure for a reason. If an adult attempts to commit suicide by climbing into a lion enclosure, it is cruel and unfair to shoot the lions for…acting like lions. While the three-year old is too young to blamed, whichever parent or parents were with him had an obligation to watch him and make sure that he did not climb into the habitat of a silverback gorilla.
I understand that mistakes happen, kids escape very suddenly, and that good parents screw up sometimes. But that does not change the fact that parents are responsible for watching their children. Society needs to arrive at the point in which we acknowledge that we cannot slaughter animals to save humans from the consequences of human mistakes. It should be a matter of policy that if a human wanders into an animal enclosure at a zoo, the zoo will make every attempt to humanely save them, but not at the cost of killing the animal. Any human death, especially that of a child, is a horrific tragedy, and I am not trying to make light of that. Yet to handle things the way that zoos in Chile and Cincinnati is essentially taking the position that humans are not responsible for their actions and that animals must pay the ultimate penalty when humans make mistakes. Zoos should set up signs saying something along the lines of, “These animals are dangerous. Never attempt to go into their enclosures. If you do, the zoo is not responsible for any fatal or nonfatal injuries you may incur and will not kill the animals to save you.” This sounds harsh, but so is what happened to Harambe the Gorilla. Both the man who attempted suicide in Chile and the parents who let their kid wander into a gorilla enclosure should be forced to work to pay to replace the dead lions and gorilla. And both zoos should be placed under new management immediately. I think there are benefits to zoos and love visiting them, but these disgusting incidents certainly lend some degree of credence to the idea that zoos are inhumane. If zoos are going to continue to exist, nothing like these incidents can ever happen again.
Of course, these sorts of problems do not just exist with zoo animals. We have all seen, either in person, on social media, or both, the parents who think it is funny for their children to poke, pinch, etc. cats and dogs. Then, many of them will blame the animal if their child gets bitten. This is not one of those nonsensical “kids these days” rants. Most children will not intentionally torment an animal, and there is no reason to think that modern children are any more likely to engage in this type of behavior than children from generations past. But all parents must teach their children proper behavior around pets. And all pet owners must protect their pets from tormenting by children and make it clear that their pet will not be punished if a child, say, pinches the pet’s ear and gets bitten.
Longtime conservationist and television personality, Jeff Corwin, sums up the overall problem quite nicely: “Zoos aren’t your babysitter … take a break from the cell phone, the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time for this kid, this little boy to find himself in that situation. Ultimately it’s the gorilla that’s paid this price.”