The typical response when someone saves a small child from harm isn’t “How dare you?”
But the Cincinnati Zoo has been subjected to a torrent of abuse for making the agonizing decision to shoot and kill one of its gorillas, a 17-year-old silverback named Harambe, when a 4-year-old boy fell into its enclosure.
Invariably, the adjective used to describe Harambe is “magnificent,” and rightly so. Gorillas are physically imposing and highly intelligent, with sophisticated social structures. In a better world, they probably wouldn’t be confined for our viewing pleasure, but that’s another issue.
The question is what should the Cincinnati Zoo have done when forced to choose between the welfare of a prodigious animal and a small human?
This wasn’t a case of a hunter who went out of his way at great expense and trouble to shoot a lion or some other glorious creature for the triumphant photo with the carcass and the trophy on the wall back home. This wasn’t a poacher who killed for tawdry profit. This wasn’t a fly-by-night roadside attraction abusing the poor creatures in its clutches.
This was a serious, responsible institution confronted with a life-and-death crisis, in real time and not of its devising.
When the little boy somehow crawled through the fencing outside the enclosure and splashed into water with Harambe — and yes, the boy’s mother should have been paying closer attention — the child’s life was potentially in danger. This was self-evident to the shocked and dismayed witnesses, who watched Harambe drag the kid around by the ankle like a proverbial rag doll.
Everything that people lamenting the shooting say about Harambe may be true: He wanted to help. He didn’t mean the child any harm. He was merely confused. None of this means he wasn’t a danger.
We desperately want to anthropomorphize apes, and make them out to be the gentle giants of our imagination. We want to believe that King Kong was just misunderstood, with a thing for blondes. That Koko the sign-language gorilla really cares about global warming. Gorillas are indeed — putting aside their hair-raisingly brutal sexual politics — largely peaceful and admirable mothers and fathers.
They are still wild beasts. Harambe was a forbiddingly strong 420-pound creature with no experience baby-sitting. He could seriously hurt a child without even trying.
Once that is acknowledged, it’s clear that the zoo had no good choices. Its critics — including celebrities who are suddenly amateur primatologists — have insisted there must have been a way to create a happy ending for all.
The zoo could have reasoned with Harambe. But zoo officials called the gorillas out of the enclosure when the child fell in; the two females complied, Harambe did not. They could have tranquilized Harambe. But this would have agitated him more, and the tranquilizers would have taken time to work. They could have, as one expert mused to an Australian paper, shot the gorilla in the shoulder. Because there’s nothing like a badly wounded gorilla in possession of a child.
G.K. Chesterton wrote of the healthy and unhealthy love of animals, with the latter characterized by its overseriousness. Exhibit A: the change.org petition that has garnered more than 300,000 signatures and is titled “Justice for Harambe.”
For his part, Chesterton was quite prepared to love a rhinoceros (“with reasonable precautions”), but couldn’t give himself over to what he called “animal worship.” He believed that “wherever there is Animal Worship there is Human Sacrifice. That is, both symbolically and literally, a real truth of historical experience.”
In this case, the would-be human sacrifice wasn’t an abstraction. He was a 4-year-old boy. The Cincinnati Zoo, to its credit, wasn’t willing to discount his welfare, even if the decision was excruciating. It sacrificed the beast to protect the child. In a less sentimental age, the moral calculus would be obvious.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.