Many parents have experienced that fearful moment when their child, who they assumed was right behind them, or right over there—is not, in fact, where they should be.
As Jeffrey Kluger put it for Time Magazine, children “are the electrons in the nuclear family—kinetic, frenetic, seemingly occupying two or three places at the same moment, and drawn irresistibly to the most dangerous things in their environment.”
Meanwhile, parents are set up as anxious stewards, ever trying to monitor their space, ever trying to grow “eyes in the back of their heads.” It’s no wonder that helicopter parenting has become a problem—none of us want to become that “what if” story.
Sadly, one mother on Saturday had the misfortune and almost-tragedy of becoming that “what if” story. Namely: what if your little boy slips away from you at the zoo?
A four-year-old boy managed to separate himself from his mother, climb over a three-foot barrier and slip through the four feet of bushes separating spectators from a gorilla habitat. He then fell 15 feet into the shallow pool of water right below the gorilla’s position. Zoo officials attempted to call in the animals, and the two female gorillas complied.
But Harambe, the male, did not. He was distracted, eyewitnesses say, by the splashing of the little boy and the frenzied concern of the gathering crowd. He got into the water and approached the boy—at first, in a seemingly protective way. But when he began to drag the boy around in the water violently, zoo officials decided the only safe course of action was to shoot the gorilla. To tranquillize him with a dart, they explained later, would have been a perilous and almost assuredly life-ending choice for the boy. It takes much longer for the tranquilizer to calm an agitated gorilla—and in the meantime, the sting of any such dart would anger the animal, leading him to associate that pain with the nearest possible source of pain (in this case, the four-year-old).
Despite the circumstances explained by multiple sources, public outrage has been uproarious indeed. Some have said that the gorilla was merely “protecting” the boy, and that the zoo officials should not have shot him. Others have accused the Cincinatti zoo of endangering, in the words of animal activist Michael A. Budkie, “both the public and Harambe by maintaining an enclosure which allowed a member of the public to gain access to a potentially dangerous animal.” On Twitter, PETA argued that this case demonstrates why animals never should be held in captivity in the first place. In response to these accusations, Cincinnati police are now investigating the incident, to determine whether “charges need to be brought forward.”
But it’s not the zoo that the police intend to investigate—it’s the mother, who is under heavy fire right now. A Change.org petition argued for “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” (It has received over 370,000 signatures). One person posted on Twitter, “I am SICK&TIRED of LAZY people who do not WATCH THEIR CHILDREN.” Comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted, “It seems that some gorillas make better parents than some people.” Radio and game show host D.L. Hughley said “If you leave your kid in a car you go to jail, if you let your kid fall into a Gorilla Enclosure u should too!”
Protesters gathered outside the zoo with these signs:
— Tammy Mutasa (@TammyMutasaWLWT) May 29, 2016
One meme of a gorilla reads, “I was killed because a bitch wasn’t watching her child.”
Yet eyewitness accounts tell a more nuanced story: as one woman told CNN, the boy wanted to get in the water he saw down in the moat, but his mother told him no, and “admonished him to behave.” She then became distracted by the other children in her care. “Her attention was drawn away for seconds, maybe a minute, and then he was up and in before you knew it,” said O’Connor.
Elisa Strauss noted some of the irony in this response over at Slate: “Today’s mothers and fathers are constantly denounced as helicopter parents—micromanagers and overcoddlers of their children who will never learn how to be independent,” she writes. “The finger-pointing at the parents of the boy at the zoo suggests that there is no such thing as the right amount of parenting. Things go wrong because either we’ve done too little or done too much.”
Lenore Skenazy—author of the book and blog Free Range Kids—has defended the mother over at Reason. It’s easy, she says, “to sink into the sewer of self-righteousness and pretend that if only someone had been doing what we believe we would have done in that unpredictable situation, everything would be peachy.”
What sort of stories and outrage would we be seeing if the zoo had not chosen to put down the gorilla, and it had resulted in the death of that four-year-old boy? Surely there are few who would argue a preschooler, foolish though he may have been, should have lost his life because he was a “brat” or his mother was “irresponsible.”
No parent is omnipotent, and even the best need a helping hand. Yet rather than helping and supporting parents in today’s world, many of us are all too willing to be vocal bystanders. We cast an annoyed glance at the mother with an upset toddler at the grocery store, rather than helping her pull paper towels off the top shelf. Rather than privately professing concern, we call the cops when a mom runs into a store and leaves her kid in the car. Before halting the perilous actions of an adventurous little boy, we first ask the question, “Whose kid is this?” (In the words of one eyewitness account, a woman was “getting ready to grab” the child “until she asks, ‘Whose kid is this?'” The eyewitness adds: “None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes…”)
Our society has conditioned us not to touch other peoples’ kids, not to intervene in other peoples’ business. We don’t feel comfortable doing so, or are afraid we’ll make a parent angry rather than doing them any good. But there are situations in which we can express concern and support, offering quick action and a halting hand to that kid who’s wandering off. Doing so might not just save a frenzied mother a headache—it might help save the life of her child.
Hopefully the little boy will be more attentive to his mother in the future; hopefully zookeepers will be more careful about their barriers; hopefully the boy’s mother will be able to grow eyes in the back of her head. But in the meantime, it seems best that we as a society stop crying for blood, and instead offer sympathy and help to those who need it—perhaps by offering support to conservation efforts for gorillas like Harambe, or even by offering another set of eyes and ears to mothers out and about with their children.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.