Stop Blaming "Bad Parenting" for the Death of Harambe the Gorilla

These parents are being drawn and quartered for something that could have happened to anyone. Losing sight of a child for a minute is not evidence of negligence or unfit parenting.
Publish date:
June 3, 2016
parenting, shaming

When the Cincinnati Zoo made the regrettable but appropriate call to shoot a gorilla who appeared to be posing a threat to a child this weekend, I predicted that the animal-loving internet would go bananas. I also predicted that the child's parents would be blamed for the death, likely with extreme vitriol. I was right on both counts, so I guess I can say that I'm unsurprised that my limited faith in humanity has once again been justified.

The circumstances of the shooting have been pretty well hashed out in the media, and there's some video to illustrate what happened and how, but basically, it appears that the child involved managed to get through a barrier separating the public from the gorilla enclosure, at which point he fell into the moat. While the zoo managed to recall two of the gorillas, the male, Harambe, had already spotted the child and was interacting with him quite roughly. The video shows him dragging and yanking the kid through the water, and it's pretty clear that he's not being playful or protective.

Zoo staff determined that it would be dangerous to attempt to tranquilize him, because it can take up to ten minutes for a tranquilizer to act and it might agitate the gorilla. Shooting him can't have been an easy choice and I do not envy the zoo employee who was forced to do it. (Especially since I imagine that person would become a target for horrific social media abuse if they are ever identified.)

Silverback gorillas are incredibly rare, beautiful, sensitive, awesome animals. It's a tragedy to lose one, as the zoo and conservation specialists all over the world iterated. Zoo employees, though, had information that we don't have, including years of experience interacting with Harambe, and an assessment on the scene. They didn't take the decision lightly, but they did need to defend the life of the child, no matter how he ended up there.

Instead of being nice rational adults who can go "man, it really sucks that they had to shoot that gorilla, but we weren't there and it was probably the best choice in a bad situation," however, we all apparently have to carry on like screaming toddlers with no sense of scale.

A fair number of people are heaping blame on the zoo, but it's the toddler's parents, particularly his mother, Michelle Gregg, who have been thoroughly abused in social media. They're getting death threats, suggestions that his mother should be "sterilized," and all kinds of racist abuse, as you can see if you hop on Twitter's #Harambe hashtag. Meanwhile, the media has made much of the father's criminal history, while largely ignoring the fact that the zoo had been cited on multiple occasions for security problems.

This situation really reminds me of a story from my childhood.

When I was about six years old, my father and I took the ferry over to Turkey for a few days to mess around, and one day, we were in a crowded subway station in Istanbul and I raced on board a train right as it was about to pull out. My father couldn't catch up with me in time, and apparently there was some frantic calling of station agents and policemen and that sort of thing until I was rounded up again several stations down the line.

It's the kind of thing that makes for a funny story now because nothing particularly bad happened, and my father's sense of stark, abject panic at seeing me swallowed up into the maw of a busy commuter train has since faded.

My father is not, and has never been, a bad parent. He was always super attentive whenever we were out somewhere, and he took his parenting responsibilities extremely seriously, no matter the setting or the circumstances. But the fact of the matter is that kids are slippery, and kids are fast, and even when you're 100 percent focused on them, they can totally get away from you.

I didn't wind up on a train in a strange city with no one I knew because of bad parenting. I ended up there because I was a six year old kid and I darted across a train platform because it looked like fun. There was absolutely nothing my father could have done. But if something bad had happened, and if this had been the social media era, my father would have been vilified for an accident that happened in the blink of an eye.

What do my escapades on the Turkish subway have to do with a lowland gorilla in Cincinnati? Both involved accidents that could have happened to anyone. The world's Number One Best Ever Parent could lose sight of her kid for an instant in a crowd. That's all it takes. Yet, the internet has smugly descended upon this poor woman to insist that they're better parents than she is. They're so heated over this that they've been harassing the wrong person, just because she happens to share the mother's name.

They've started multiple petitions attacking her and her family, including demanding that family services look into the welfare of their children and insisting that the police file charges against the family — and police are apparently bowing to pressure and doing just that. has become an instrument for harassment and bullying, evidently.

I cannot even begin to imagine how heartstopping it would be to see your child in a zoo enclosure with potentially dangerous animals. Even with your child safely returned at the end of the encounter, it would be traumatic, and for a three-year-old boy, watching an animal shot right in front of you would likely create some lingering psychological distress. But now, just when they think their family is safe and they can move on from a really upsetting event, they have the internet hounding them from every direction, harassing them online, sleuthing out where they work to harass them there, and making horrific comments on social media.

These parents are being drawn and quartered for something that could have happened to anyone. Losing sight of a child for a minute is not evidence of negligence or unfit parenting. We are human beings, and parenting is hard work, and kids that age are almost willfully determined to get in trouble. It really, really sucks that this happened, but it's not the fault of the child or his parents. It was a freak accident.

Rather than screaming and moaning about parental neglect, the infuriated internet should really be turning its eyes to the zoo, not with screams of "HOW DARE YOU!!!!," but to ask, reasonably, why the enclosure was so easy to access.

And it should be asking a larger, more important question: Why was Harambe on display as an object of public entertainment in the first place? Shouldn't he have been in a protected, natural conservation area as part of a program designed to bring lowland gorilla numbers back up? Why are we keeping animals in zoos in the first place? Will the people who are currently screeching threats actually commit to making improvements in animal welfare, or will they be content to ride the outrage machine for a while and then check out, just like they did with Cecil the lion, Marius the giraffe, and countless other animals involved in fatal interactions with humans?

This is already a terrible situation. Let's not make it worse by tormenting this poor kid and his family.

Photo: Tianna Spicer/Creative Commons.