“All These Squawking Birds Won’t Quit”: About the Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla Incident

The title to this piece is a lyric from The Shins, who peaked in popularity in the early 2000’s.  I will admit, using the line to title a piece about those who condemn the mother of the recent Cincinnati Zoo tragedy is condescending and mildly incendiary.  Rest assured, I know at least logically that the human beings behind this tiring vitriol are, indeed, human beings with their own complex views and perspectives on life, and I don’t deny that many of them feel genuinely upset, even outraged, over what happened to the four-hundred-pound male gorilla a few days ago.  In some cases, I think raw emotion fuels the (often scathing) condemnation of a human being who made a mistake – no matter how unthinkable and unorthodox, how stupid, the mistake may seem to many out there, especially to mothers who care for children every day.   But after reading so many articles condemning the mother, so many articles about people condemning the mother, and so many caustic comments in the comment sections of various websites (yes, I have an unhealthy addiction to comment sections), this bit of song lyric has been nearly sputtering in my head on repeat.  These commenters, who weren’t present, who have (in most cases) no concrete knowledge of the Cincinnati Zoo, its layout, and the potential logistics behind the sad accident, start to sound like squawking birds to me.

I am not, as it turns out, an activist.  On my own Facebook timeline, I posted a straightforward, maybe even angry post to those who are mercilessly criticizing the mother for her error (for, whether one judges her actions as stupid, careless, or as – what I tend to think – merely accidental, this situation was, indeed, the result of an error, at most, and not an act of hate, not an act of malice.  Evil actions, even evil people, have, in short, received far less backlash for worse crimes).  But I posted my thoughts fifteen minutes ago, at around 1:30 in the morning, so it’s likely few of my Facebook connections saw it, none reacted, and I deleted it when I thought of the consequences – namely, my own discomfort with the post later.  As a sensitive introvert, I shied away at the prospect of making such a bold, unpopular proclamation of my feelings on this incident to a large number of people.  Though it may seem paradoxical, a carefully developed blog post seemed safer and less likely to attract attention.  Perhaps if I’d been born a different person, I’d welcome the controversy, or, to put it more pleasantly, the conversation, but self-acceptance and temperament are the subjects of another blog post entirely.

And my temperament, since I mentioned the word, either has genuine empathy for this woman, or deems it logically problematic that people utter hasty judgments with little information about the situation.  I would like to say that I feel empathy alone, but my same capacity for empathy can turn to bitterness when I see people condemning a woman to a degree that isn’t commensurate with her appropriate level of blame, not because something awful didn’t happen (it did), but because the degree of her transgression was, in this case, far less than the tragic consequences of it.  And in my opinion, life can be cruel like that.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but fate has mostly smiled on me; things turned out reasonably well.  As for this woman, she lost track of her child in a quick moment, didn’t know where to find him in a crowd, likely looked around elsewhere while he crept through the bushes, unable to know, with certainty, where he went, and did not find him before he entered the gorilla cage.  In short, one minute – nay, a few seconds – of inattentiveness, led to the horrible death of an endangered animal, the serious injury of a little boy, and the scathing backlash of an angry society, along with media coverage that seems none too concerned about telling the mother’s side of the story.  Should you feel a need to punish the mother (which I don’t) rest assured the burden of these consequences will punish her enough.  To me, logically, this punishment, which occurred through a natural, albeit unfortunate chain of events, far outweighs the crime, and she should be held accountable for little else in this matter.

I wanted to appeal to empathy, and the lack of it that the mass media, and specifically the internet, as it is currently structured, promotes.  But upon further reflection I realize that I am not always as empathetic as I’d like to be, so perhaps it would be hypocritical to talk of empathy when I am clearly short on empathy for this woman’s detractors, who may, as I noted earlier, be experiencing a range of emotions about this event, emotions that provoke their comments.  As such, I will continue appealing to logic.  According to my logic, a.) the consequences of the mother’s action (or inaction) far outweighed the degree of the initial mistake, and, b.) as such, the public backlash and outrage is far stronger than is logically appropriate, meaning this woman, on top of feeling guilty for the death of the gorilla and the injuries of her son, is now the unfortunate recipient of unjust hate.  If a mother loses her child in a supermarket, we feel sorry for her, and happy and eager to re-unite her with her lost young one.  It seems, then, a bit inconsistent to condemn this mother, just because her mistake happened to result in the sad, untimely death of an animal.  If, despite the mistaken nature of this action, she had more control over the whereabouts of her son, clearly she did not have full control of the results of the accident.  And, being a naturally inattentive person (one who was even diagnosed with ADD as a child), I can empathize with the inability to control what one directs her attention to, at least on a second-by-second basis.  It is easy to be distracted for a short while.  But then, maybe distractable people, if the category does exist, just shouldn’t procreate?

Perhaps it is also significant to note that some of the criticizers probably don’t think twice about killing some animals, and ate chicken for dinner.  I cannot say that the death of an endangered gorilla is necessarily the same as the death of a cow or a chicken (though animal lovers may make that argument).  On the other hand, if we cannot regard a human as more important than a gorilla (if shooting the gorilla was wrong) then perhaps we cannot regard a gorilla as more important than a cow or a chicken.  In short, if you condemn the zoo for their quick decision to save the child’s life at the expense of the gorilla’s but ate a steak for dinner, you may be, at worst, a hypocrite, or at least, the unfortunate victim of a logical inconsistency.

In any case, I think it rather sad that this woman has to experience so much hate for her mistake. For additional fodder for contemplation, I’m linking an eye-witness account of the incident here, an account in defense of the mother.  I think it is important to note that the woman who wrote this post was an eye-witness.  I will admit, then, that I regard her perspective more than the myriad who are quick to comment on the incident but were not present that day to see, exactly, what transpired.

To the mother: I am sorry that you and your child must go through this.  I wish the best for you and your family.

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