The killing of Harambe over Memorial Day Week (May 28), the male Lowland Silverback Gorilla who refused to vacate his facility after being summoned by his handlers when a four-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo has, as usual, brought out the best and worst in us as Americans. Collectively, we have breathed a sigh of relief that the little boy has escaped unharmed. Had he been killed, maimed, crushed to death, it would have been a national tragedy caught on numerous cell phones and iPads for the entire world to mourn. We thankfully avoided that and the boy is safe. That done, we have turned to “armchair quarter-backing” the zoo officials for their decision to kill a beloved fixture at the zoo, and even more so, looking to vilify the mother of the boy who, through some measure of distraction, incompetence, irresponsibility, or inexperience, let her son wander far enough from her care that he could enter a gorilla pen, and as a result, Harambe had to be sacrificed. That the family is African-American, the father was not present, and the father has a criminal record, have all become fuel for a disturbing racial fever dream, and the mother has received numerous death threats as the dark underbelly of America attempts to hold her accountable and make her pay for the death of beloved Harambe. Where we should be celebrating the rescue of the child and reverently mourning the sacrifice of Harambe, we are more preoccupied with blaming, judging, and race-hating. Sadly, this is just status quo in 21st century USA.
The story has some extra special meaning for me because when I was growing up my family owned two monkeys. Yes, that’s right, monkeys. Most people nowadays don’t remember a time in America when primates were household pets, but I do. When I was growing up in the early 1970s we owned two monkeys: Dottie and Cheetah. Many people don’t even believe me when I tell them that, but I have the pictures to prove it.
Dottie was a Spider Monkey and, truly, I don’t remember much about her; I was very young. My parents loved her, she got big, unwieldy, and a touch unpredictable – read fierce – and as a precaution and with great sadness, my parents gave her to a local PA zoo to live out her life, protected and in peace. Cheetah I remember much better. Cheetah had a place of honor in our house, a giant elevated cage smack in the middle of the dining room. She wore a little cloth diaper when she was out of the cage, which was frequent; she climbed gleefully up and down my Mom’s blue curtains; and she loved to steal and eat everyone’s maraschino cherries off their ice cream sundaes on the dining room table. She was gentle, intelligent, childlike, almost human. When she passed away after a good life, my parents inquired about getting another monkey, but the laws had changed. Primates were no longer pets; my parents were outraged, and thus ended monkeys (kinda) in my family tree.
As a parent of a two-year old, I can’t help but agree with the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to put Harambe down. Jane Goodall, Jack Hanna, and many other experts have supported the decision and I believe I must also, but like them I don’t have to like the sacrifice. I know that if John Adams had gotten away from me and somehow gotten into a dangerous animal’s cage, I would want the authorities to do everything they could to protect his life, whether he or I was at fault or not. And from the moment that little boy entered that enclosure and Harambe disobeyed the command to vacate, the gorilla was doomed. Had the zookeepers hesitated and the child had been killed, it would have been a public relations nightmare: the zoo’s reputation would’ve been ruined, a human family destroyed and outraged, jobs would’ve been lost, lawsuits enacted, revenue lost, and on and on. There was no other choice available: a human child, knowingly or unknowingly, broke the rules, and a gorilla was going to make the ultimate sacrifice.
To date, I’ve seen little credible journalism on the attending mother, so it’s hard to comment knowledgeably on what happened there, though many are doing so anyway. Was she on her cell phone as many have speculated? Was she using the confines of the zoo as a babysitting service rather than managing her child? To what extent was she negligent? It’s hard to say at this point without all the facts; however, I do feel confident – while acknowledging that accidents happen – saying that there was at least some fault on her part. Unless she was dealing with another emergency and he just slipped away, it would seem that she simply overestimated her ability to manage the child, and that hubris cost Harambe his life. Let’s hope she has learned something from this.
All through Memorial Day Weekend I’ve been reminded of that beautiful penultimate scene in Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks, as he’s dying, looks at Matt Damon’s character and says, “Earn this.” So many people died to bring Damon’s character, Ryan, safely home. His life was deemed important enough that many others sacrificed theirs for his. The metaphor is unfortunate, clear, burdensome, and disturbing. The Four-Year-Old-Who-Lived has no clear idea at this point in his life what just was done to save him, but he will be made aware of it someday, the media will see to that, and his life will be called into account. The burden of national recompense can’t really fall to the parents. They’ve been turned on, shamed, vilified, and threatened by the public. That kind of societal contempt doesn’t breed lasting gratitude. So, unfairly or not, the burden has fallen to the child to make Harambe’s sacrifice of his own life worthwhile, and to heal the national wound that has been Harambe’s loss.
I truly hope when the child grows up he is healthy and strong, wise and kind, and knows what one beloved animal gave in the summer of 2016 so that he might live, and makes some effort to make redress. We as a nation need this. Our national soul requires healing and cries out for a meaningful happy ending that places Harambe’s sacrifice in a positive context beyond, I’m sorry to say, the fact that he had to die so a human boy might live. That’s not the boy’s fault necessarily, but it is now, I fear, his burden to bear.
So I say to him: Accidents happen. No blame, no punishment, no judgment; truly. Only love. We are all happy and lucky you are alive. But when you grow up – and we all hope you will – please, PLEASE do the right and kind thing by the men and women who saved you, and by Harambe who died for you:
With Love and Light,