Gorilla Killed to Save Boy: Who’s to Blame?

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A silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo has been shot and killed by the zoo after a 4-year old boy sneaked into the enclosure and was at risk of being torn limb from limb. At this point, everyone is weighing in with their professional opinions on what happened and whether it was right. Here are the various camps:

CAMP 1 blames the mother of the 4-year old, because she wasn’t watching her kid long enough to keep him from breaching the multiple barriers the zoo established to keep people out of reach of the gorillas.

CAMP 2 blames the zoo, for not having more hardcore enclosures. Something like an electric fence, 4-inch bulletproof glass, or gorillas strapped onto wheeled stand-up gurney things like Hannibal Lector.

CAMP 3 blames the zoo for killing the gorilla because they think the gorilla was actually trying to protect the boy.

CAMP 4 blames the zoo and the parents and society as a whole for using animals as a prop to attract attention and money. It’s like, it’s bad enough that these intelligent, beautiful animals are being kept in prisons, but we’re also teaching children that this is how wild animals should be–docile and put on display for our personal entertainment, to gape at in between eating lukewarm chicken fingers and going to see an iMax movie.

I don’t make videos about breaking news unless I have a super hot take, and here’s mine: Everyone is wrong. Shit’s complicated.

For those blaming the mother: seriously, think about your lives and get depressed. No one seems to blame the father, which is bullshit, and also kids slip away. It fucking happens. Four years old is just old enough to cause trouble while being young enough to have no idea of the consequences, so it’s not even fair to blame the parents for not teaching a kid to have more respect for wild animals. He’s four. He’s an idiot.

For those blaming the zoo for not having better enclosures, okay, fine, but remember that there’s only so much they can do while still offering you the best experience possible. The best enclosure for the gorilla and for errant 4-year olds would be one where you’d never get to see the damn gorilla, which renders the entire point moot.

For those who think the zoo was wrong to kill the gorilla because he was actually protecting the kid, jesus fucking christ, get your shit together and realize we’re not living in a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. I’m pretty sure the people who work with these animals every single day know better than you about what they’re capable of. Stop projecting your own thoughts and feeling onto animals you have no clue about. The gorilla may not have meant to harm the kid but he was dragging him around by the foot, and he was clearly disoriented by the crowd of people screaming at him. This isn’t Curious George, for fuck’s sake.

For those who think zoos shouldn’t exist, anyway, yeah, I agree that the idea of keeping these animals in captivity is pretty terrible and in a perfect world they shouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, zoos may be our best chance of keeping critically endangered species like the lowland gorilla alive. Cincinnati Zoo is one of the institutions that participates in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, which breeds captive gorillas to increase the population in zoos while funding conservation efforts in the wild.

“But Rebecca,” you say, “wouldn’t it be better if we just gave money to fund conservation efforts in the wild instead of doing it through zoos continuing to imprison these beautiful animals?” Yes, that would be great if we did that, but we obviously don’t do that. Sorry, but humans don’t give a shit about things they can’t see and experience. And even now, conservation efforts in the wild aren’t necessarily working wonders. If they fail, zoos may be our literal last chance to keep gorillas alive.

“But Rebecca,” you say, “would it be worth keeping gorillas alive if their habitat is gone and they can only survive imprisoned in zoos?” Yes. Yes, yes yes. Would it be worth it to humanity as a whole if we had a small population of stegasauruses in dino zoos? Yes. Would it be worth it to have a few dodos kicking around San Diego zoo? Yes. Yes yes yes. And if we can keep gorillas around long enough to get our shit together and rebuild their habitat, all the better. But for right now, releasing gorillas from captivity usually ends up going very badly for the gorillas.

I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but I am saying that you don’t have all the answers either. Please remember that before sharing a meme about what a bitch some mom is you don’t know, or how we should immediately shut down all the zoos. It’s more complicated than that.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Yeah, I mean I basically agree. But it’s possible to build barriers that a 4-year-old child cannot get through. If a gorilla is liable to be shot and killed if a child ends up in his enclosure, then zoos have an ethical responsibility to the gorilla to make sure that no children end up in his enclosure. They should have built a barrier that can stop a 4-year-old child.

  2. I usually agree with your opinion, but this time it is hard for me to comprehend how anyone could possibly DISAGREE.

    Life is COMPLICATED!!! Why can’t more people realize that?

    I’m so sick of the (seemingly accelerating) trend of over-simplification. Everyone wants simple answers to complex questions. They refuse to look past the latest meme or sound-bite.

    Even worse, hardly anyone seems to realize that if one option is bad or undesirable (e.g. shooting the gorilla), there is no guarantee that other options are good — sometimes (all too often) all options are bad and you must try to pick the least bad choice.

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