We are now just over a year removed from the infamous shooting of Harambe, a gorilla at a Cincinnati zoo. Shortly after the shooting, I wrote this blog post articulating some of my thoughts on the shooting and a somewhat analogous shooting at a Chilean zoo. My basic opinion has not changed, but I believe that in hindsight, I was too harsh on the parents of the child who climbed into Harambe’s enclosure. Accidents happen with parenting, and all parents mess up sometimes. I should not have assumed that the parent or parents on scene were being negligent. And my proposal that whichever parent or parents was on scene should be forced to work to pay for the zoo to get a new gorilla wrongly absolved the zoo of any blame–a general flaw in my original post. Additionally, the term “replace” effectively treated both the gorilla and the lions at the Chilean zoo as commodities, which was the exact opposite of what I was attempting to convey. With that in mind, here are some retrospective thoughts on the shooting.
1. This is probably my most unpopular opinion: I maintain that if a human ends up in danger from an animal due to human folly, it is wrong to kill the animal to protect them. This absolutely does not mean the person deserves to get killed, especially in the case of a child. It just means that it is unjust to kill an animal because humans screwed up.
2. Zoos are at least ostensibly supposed to be sanctuaries for animals, so that makes Point 1 especially applicable here. You cannot go into a zoo, fail to prevent your kid from ending up in an enclosure, and then have the animal killed. Again, I am not saying the parents of the kid were being irresponsible, but the zoo is a place where animals are supposed to be safe; zoos should be primarily for animals and not people.
3. From an ethical standpoint, this is somewhat akin to the trolley debate about pushing someone onto the train tracks to stop a train crash. If the zoo officials had tried to use non-lethal methods to save the child and failed, they wouldn’t have actually been killing someone; they would have failed to prevent a death because they felt there was no ethical way to do so. But by shooting Harambe, they were directly responsible for the death of an innocent party.
4. If they had not killed Harambe, it is possible the kid would have died, but it’s also possible they could have saved both. But the way they went about it, they guaranteed Harambe’s death.
5. Both the zoo and parents deserve some blame here. Even great parents sometimes lose track of their kids, but that does not relieve them of responsibility when it does happen. And I would argue that you have to be super careful about that in a place like a zoo. On the flip side, if zoos are going to shoot animals in situations like this, they have an obligation to make sure people do not climb into the enclosure. If the child had gotten hurt, I do not believe that the parents would have had a case for a lawsuit, because the zoos do not have a responsibility to the customers to keep them or their kids out of enclosures; that responsibility is on the customers. But the zoo does have a responsibility to ensure the animals’ safety, and when you have got a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy, ensuring their safety includes keeping people from climbing in. And ultimately, it is more worthwhile for the conversation to primarily revolve around how the child could have been prevented from getting into the enclosure than it is to focus on whether or not the shooting was justified after things got to that point. Once the child was in the enclosure, there were no good options, and the zoo was in a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. And when it comes down to it, most people will opt for killing the animal in a situation like that.
6. The Harambe memes were largely racist, and I am sure that some of the people angry about the shooting were motivated by bigotry, but I do not think that was the primary reason for the outrage for 3 major reasons. Firstly, as I recall, the story seemed to go viral, people heard about it, and they formed their opinions before the race of the family was known. In fact, these tweets might be fake, but it appears some people actually assumed the kid was white at first and made tweets with that assumption. I actually kind of wish that every controversial story could be like this, where we form an opinion, then learn the race of the people involved. And it felt like some (not all, obviously) of the people accusing critics of the shooting of being racist were tacitly suggesting that critics should have changed their view once finding out the kid was black. That said, Fox News doing a story on the kid’s dad’s criminal background was probably motivated by racism; that network doesn’t exactly seem super concerned about animals. Secondly, it seemed like the people angry about the shooting were primarily left-wing hippie types who are generally anti-racist, while right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh tended to choose species solidarity and defend the shooting, criticizing people who had a problem with it. I believe that Jill Stein was the only presidential candidate to comment on it, and she was also the most radically left wing on race. Certainly, some hippies are bad on race issues, but they do tend to skew more liberal on civil rights than the social conservatives who were predominantly in favor of the shooting. Thirdly, a lot of people just really love animals, and I think it is a big oversimplification to boil that down to racism.
7. The argument that someone cannot judge the parents unless they had kids was rather weak. Whether or not the parents were being irresponsible (reports seem to vary), that argument seems faulty to me. People seem to use a similar argument to dismiss critics of police shootings, basically saying “You can’t judge this, you’re not a cop,” and I do not like it there either. I am not comparing police shootings with the shooting of Harambe but rather pointing out that the “you can’t judge” argument is a very slippery slope.
8. I honestly do not think that we can say objectively as a point of fact that human lives are more valuable than animal lives. I certainly treat human lives as more valuable than some animals, seeing as I eat meat, but I am willing to admit to hypocrisy there. The problem I see is that I do not think we can scientifically measure species’ worth, and we are far from objective. If gorillas could talk, they would probably say their species was the most valuable, and probably almost every other animal would say that about their own species. The only other animal that would probably say humans are the most valuable would be dogs. I have seen conservatives, who as mentioned earlier, generally seemed to support the killing, bring up that the Bible says humans are made in the image of God and worth more than animals, but that kind of proves my point. I am a Christian, but if tigers had a religion, they would probably say that God looks like them.