The primary lesson is this: Sometimes bad things happen and nobody deserves to be punished.
The tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla is exactly this kind of incident.
In case you weren’t following zoo news over the long weekend, what happened was this. On Saturday, a mother visiting the Cincinnati zoo with several children in tow took her eyes off of a toddler long enough for him to breach the three foot barricade at the Gorilla World exhibit and fall into its moat. Harambe, a 17-year old Lowland gorilla male, took hold of the child, and zookeepers shot the animal dead.
Then animal rights zealots held a vigil outside the zoo to mourn the gorilla. Petitions were placed on line blaming the child’s mother for the gorilla’s death. Other critics said that the zoo-keepers should have tranquilized the beast, a member of an endangered species. The zoo called a news conference to defend its actions.
1. Animal rights activists are shameless, and will exploit any opportunity to advance their agenda, which in its craziest form demands that animals be accorded the same civil rights as humans. Their argument rests equally on sentiment and science, and takes an absolute position in a very complex ethics conflict. This incident is a freak, and cannot fairly be used to reach any conclusions about zoos and keeping wild animals captive.
2. Yes, the mother made a mistake, by definition. This is res ipsa loquitur: “the thing speaks for itself.” If a child under adult supervision gets into a gorilla enclosure, then the adult has not been competent, careful and diligent in his or her oversight. The truth is, however, that every parent alive has several, probably many, such moments of distraction that could result in disaster, absent moral luck. This wasn’t gross negligence; it was routine, human negligence, for nobody is perfect all the time. You want gross negligence involving animals? How about this, one of the first ethics essays I ever wrote, about the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin holding his infant son in one arm while feeding and taunting a 12-foot crocodile? You want gross negligence amounting to child endangerment? Look no further than the 6-month-old waterskiier’s parents. Taking one’s eyes off of a child for a minute or two, however, if not unavoidable, is certainly minor negligence that is endemic to parenthood. Zoos, moreover, are not supposed to be dangerous.
3. The view of the law is that the zoo is strictly liable for any harm that comes from keeping dangerous animals. This goes way, way back: a 19th Century case involving a caged ape biting off a man’s finger (the idiot had dangled his finger through the bars) was one of the first cases I studied in law school. More recent are such cases as Marsh v. Snyder, which holds that “an owner or keeper of a wild animal is absolutely liable for the injuries the wild animal causes under all circumstances, and without regard to whether he knew it to be dangerous and ferocious or not.”
Got that, PETA? The zoo had no choice but to shoot Harambe, because if the gorilla harmed the child, the zoo was liable. [ UPDATE: After this article was first posted, I learned that the zoo’s visitors were separated from the moat by a three-foot barricade, presumably so children could see over it, not climb over it. Though the zoo says the arrangement passed government inspection, it obviously is inadequate. i said that the zoo was liable; let me correct that. The zoo was incredibly liable.]
4. The zoo would have done the right thing to shoot the gorilla even if it didn’t face liability. Ethics Fact: Human lives have a greater priority than animal lives under all circumstances. I know some disagree. They are kind, sweet, well-meaning people who are also deranged. This basic principle does not mean that humans should not respect animal life as much as possible. They should. However, when a gorilla, through no fault of his own, has the ability and opportunity to kill a child in a split second, there is no ethics controversy. The child must be saved. The gorilla must die. Fact.
5. Now we come back to the beginning. An enterprising child found a flaw in the zoo’s barricades that nobody had detected before. It was moral luck that he found it, and moral luck that no child had gotten through it before. The mother, like millions of mothers do every day, diverted her attention from her small child briefly. It was moral luck, and only moral luck, that in this brief time period her child was able to visit a gorilla. At that point, the mother had no control over anything. Harambe might have followed his trainer’s order to leave the enclosure, as two other gorillas did. He didn’t. Moral luck. He might have stayed away from the child. He didn’t. Moral luck. He might have snapped the child’s neck. He didn’t. Moral luck.
There was only one way to make sure the child would live, and that was for the gorilla to die. Harambe paid the price for varied and assorted mistakes, poor choices and bad fortune mixing and interacting as chaotic systems do, and he was the only completely blameless participant in the event. That is unfair and unjust and sad, but that is also how life is, often. Taking out our frustration and grief on any of the parties to this tragedy, none of whom would have willed it and none of whom, by themselves, could have caused it, isn’t ethical. It is emotional, irrational, and childish,
6. We should always look for ways to prevent tragedies from repeating; that’s just responsible and diligent. We should also, however, be capable of accepting that sometimes tragedies happen for no single reason, but because the cosmic dice come up snake-eyes, and someone or something is doomed by no fault of their own.
This was such a case.