The Ethics Lessons In The Tragic Death Of Harambe The Gorilla

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.

Lessons:

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. Continue reading