Killing Harambe — You Weren’t There

02 Jun 2016

At the moment, the big news story is the death of Harambe, a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. A four-year-old boy managed to get inside the gorilla enclosure. Because of the danger posed by the 400-lb. gorilla, whose actions were erratic and unpredictable, the decision was made to shoot Harambe with live ammunition in order to save the child. This is a tragedy by any standard but the alternative could have been much worse. No matter; let the Monday-morning quarterbacking begin!

We live in a miraculous time of instant communication, with the accumulated knowledge of mankind literally at our fingertips. An unfortunate byproduct of living in this age of technological wonder is that everyone is a self-proclaimed expert on everything. It’s not surprising that everyone knows how to parent better than the mother of the child – after all, the virtual world is full of perfect parents who know better than you how to raise your child. Never mind that half of them say you should watch your kids more closely and the other half say that you should give them more freedom! (The best parenting advice I ever got was “ignore everyone’s advice.” That worked pretty well for me.)

“It’s the mother’s fault!” they decry. “She should have been watching her kid!” Yes, parents should watch their small children carefully but who among us has never lost track of a young one in a department store? Preschoolers are small, fast and agile. Sometimes parents have two or three children to watch at a time. We’re only human – that’s not a crime.

“It’s the mother’s fault!” they continue. “The child said he was going into the gorilla enclosure!” That’s true; he did. But have you ever met a four-year-old? They’re not quite as rational as (most) adults and they have pretty vivid imaginations. If a child of that age told you that he was planning on taking a spaceship to preschool instead of the bus, you’d probably just smile and nod; I doubt you’d get the camera ready to take photos of the craft for NASA. Similarly, if a four-year-old said that he was going to go play with the gorilla, most parents would probably not take such a claim too seriously (nor expect their child to defeat a barrier intended to contain a silverback!).

It’s not surprising that there are so many self-proclaimed parenting experts out there. What truly amazes me is that there are so many armchair zoologists!

“They didn’t need to shoot Harambe!” they decry. “Look how gently he was treating the child!” Yes, for now. But apparently, gorillas can be volatile and turn violent. How long does it take a preschooler to irritate an adult? Should we really test a gorilla’s patience?

“They didn’t need to shoot Harambe!” they continue. “They could have tranquilized him!” Apparently, that is not the case. Tranquilizing a large animal isn’t like it looks on TV, where the animal instantly stiffens and keels over. It could take ten minutes for a tranquilizer to take effect. In that time, Harambe could easily become angry and take it out on the child. Even if the tranquilizer did take effect immediately, should we risk a 400-lb. gorilla collapsing on top of a four-year-old?

A gorilla is a renewable resource only in the loosest sense of the word. They are not what one would consider disposable, like razor blades or Dixie cups. Harambe was a living creature, a beautiful animal, and a member of an endangered species, not to mention an asset of and to the zoo. Putting down such a creature is not a decision that a zoo makes easily or takes lightly. It is an unfortunate necessity. It is, as noted above, a tragedy. But a bigger potential tragedy was averted. Had Harambe been tranquilized and that proven to be a poor decision, everyone would be Monday-morning-quarterbacking that course of action, saying that he should have been shot.

Yes, everyone’s an expert on what everyone else should do – the mother, the zoo, even law enforcement! (There are those calling for the mother’s arrest, even though law enforcement has determined that no crime was committed.) It’s one thing to have an opinion; even I have an opinion! (My opinion is that the zoo might be justified in billing the mother for one gorilla. But I could also hear a counter opinion, that the mother could justifiably sue the zoo for not having adequate safety boundaries.) Having an opinion on what might be right or fair is different from judging others based on actions they took. The bottom line is, we can’t judge what the mother or the zoo should have done because we weren’t there.

This is the lesson taught by the great sage Hillel in Pirkei Avos (chapter 2, mishna 4): “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.” The Bartinuro (a renowned commentator on the Mishna) explains that we have no right to judge another person for the actions he makes in a difficult situation until we have found ourselves in a similar situation and actually done better.

I hope the self-proclaimed parenting experts never have to deal with their child being endangered by a wild animal (or anything else). But this situation would be made even worse by having strangers around the globe blame you for it. I also hope that the self-proclaimed zoologists never have to choose between saving an innocent animal and a child. There’s no “good” resolution to such a dilemma, just “more bad” and “less bad.” But barring finding ourselves in these situations, what right do we have to judge others who did experience these things and did the best they could?

Opinions are okay. We all have opinions, on a wide variety of topics. But don’t claim to have an exclusive on absolute truth that you proclaim from on high. You just weren’t there.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.