Photo: Tristan Reville

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I used to love going to clothing stores. Not because I liked the clothes, but because certain clothing racks were cylindrical, and I could slip between the clothes and hide out in a little clothes silo. It gave me that feeling you get when you’re alone in a place no one knows about — I had the same feeling when I ran into the woods, or found a table to hide under at a restaurant, and I chased that feeling whenever I could.

My tendency to dash off to play an impromptu game of hide-and-seek, naturally, scared the bejesus out of my mother. She had my two sisters to take care of as well, and all three of us were born curious and born explorers, which she and my father considered a good thing. But she’d get disapproving looks from other store customers because her kids weren’t “in control.” So after one particularly frightening incident at the local JC Penney, she bought a velcro leash that could be wrapped around my hand to keep me from escaping into my clothes silo. This got her even more judgmental looks from store customers. “How dare that woman drag her child around like a dog!”

Moms just can’t win.

This all came rushing back to me this weekend with the story of the four-year-old boy who made his way into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo, and was manhandled by the gorilla until zoo officials were forced to kill the animal.

I grew up in Cincinnati. 26 years ago, I was that kid.

Kids at the Cincinnati Zoo

While my mother always kept a close eye on me, there were certain places where I got so excited that she couldn’t adequately constrain me, and the Cincinnati Zoo was one of them. I loved the lizards and the monkeys, and I fantasized many times about swimming across the moat to monkey island to play with the macaques. I wasn’t as into gorillas, but that’s just because they didn’t seem to ever do all that much. To the kid who fell in, I say, to each his own.

Much of the uproar around the killing of Harambe the gorilla has been directed at the mother of the child, who supposedly should have had her kid under total control during the full visit to the zoo. A popular theme was to say that the gorilla would have been a better parent than the mother of the child:


While I understand the impulse towards indignance or self-righteousness, this argument is appalling for a couple of reasons: first, you can see in the video of the incident that the gorilla was not being gentle with the child.

Aside from this video, there are witness reports that Harambe tossed the kid ten feet into the air, with the kid landing on his back. The boy suffered a concussion.

The second reason the argument is appalling is that it shows a complete ignorance of what having kids is like. Children do not behave like adults, and “keeping an eye” on your kids 24/7 is impossible unless you force them to live in the bubble. Kids wander off, they hide from parents for fun, and they are small enough and fast enough to escape you if they want.

The mother of the boy wrote the following on Facebook on Monday:

As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today.

She’d apparently been taking care of other children that were with her (she has four total) when her son slipped away. And this is understandable. I’ve had that mother. I’ve been that kid. My guess is that we all have. Most of the time, curiosity in a child is an excellent thing. But it can sometimes lead to tragedy. And that’s what happened last week.

Pointing fingers

The internet loves to be outraged. It’s an understandable impulse: rage is an emotion that comes easier and that is less painful than simple sadness. But in this situation, pointing fingers is just a way of diverting ourselves from the sad fact that a magnificent animal, through no real fault of his own, had to be killed because of a series of unfortunate events. Literally no one wanted that gorilla to die.

You could blame the zoo for not having better barriers, but the gorilla barriers at the Cincinnati Zoo have been effective for the entire 38 years of their existence, and the thing about barriers is that they’re impenetrable until the second they aren’t.

You could blame the zoo for not waiting longer to get the kid away. But that’s 20/20 hindsight. That gorilla could’ve killed the kid at any given moment, and it would be hard, as a zoo manager, to justify putting off action when a child’s life was on the line.

The hardest thing to do is to simply accept that we can’t prevent all tragedies, and that in some stories, there are no bad guys, just a bunch of humans who make mistakes. Making mistakes is a very human thing to do.

Go easier on moms (and do something to help gorillas)

If you find yourself furious at this mother, take a second to try and empathize. Try to imagine bringing your kids to the zoo in order to do something nice for them. Try to imagine having an active and inquisitive three-year-old. Try to imagine turning to help one of your other three kids, and turning back to see your child gone, and to hear screams coming from the gorilla pit. And try to imagine watching your kid get thrown around like a ragdoll.

If you can do that, then go a step further: Try to allow yourself to feel sad instead of angry. Sadness is a harder emotion than anger, but it’s ultimately healthier, and it’s far less corrosive.

If you’re still angry, maybe consider using that anger constructively. You can educate yourself about the plight of the western lowland gorilla, which is critically endangered thanks to poaching, disease, and habitat destruction (Harambe was at the Cincinnati Zoo in the hopes that he would breed with the females as part of the zoo’s conservation efforts). A really great way to help in that cause is to support the World Wildlife Fund, which fights to protect tons of species from extinction.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t hold mothers to double standards where they are either helicopter parents or are negligent. They don’t deserve that. You were a kid once, too, and this could’ve been you.

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