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Why America lost its mind over a gorilla...

To start, let me be clear--this post is not about anybody's opinion about Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, and the incident where a small child climbed into his enclosure. I'm not here to tell you who was right or wrong. (But can we ease up on the mom...please?) No, I'm much more interested in why we're all having a debate about it. Because, let's be honest, this philosophical and moral debate is ten times more interesting than the damn "what color is the dress" argument we engaged in as a nation awhile back.

The Harambe controversy is beautiful for a number of reasons which fascinate me and I'll outline them below. The main theme is that the shooting of a gorilla with a child's life on the line highlights a "sweet spot" for our cultural battles. This one incident manages to find the very center where someone--most of us--can find others who agree and an argument to be made about the merits of whatever it is we're arguing in favor of or against.  As one media outlet pointed to in an article about the Harambe affair, however, Americans seem to care much more about the death of one gorilla than the thousands of migrants dying in the Mediterranean to escape violence. It's curious.

One key takeaway for me in the gorilla madness has been that nobody blames the gorilla. Right!? One thing we can all agree on--and Americans don't agree on much these days--is that this gorilla was just being a gorilla and ended up dead through no fault of his own. That seems like it should be obvious but I think it's worth pointing out because it's getting lost in the noise. Everything going on is entirely us projecting our human stupidity, morality, and norms onto a wild animal.

Oh the "human" things going on in a story about a gorilla though! On one hand, the plot perfectly fits our ongoing debate about the supposed decline in "good" parenting...whatever that is...and the behavior of today's children. The story lines up with cries for greater personal responsibility and our rugged American need for individual rather than collective choices. This kid and his family should, apparently, pull themselves up by their own boot straps and not climb zoo fences to go in off limits areas of a dangerous wild animal pen.

On the other side, you have a deep skepticism about institutions, concerns over legal liability and safety procedures, and a critique of zoos generally and animal habitats specifically. There is, quite literally, plenty of blame to go around. Should zoos exist? (I've addressed this in other posts and just a reminder that we probably wouldn't have gorillas at all if not for zoo protections.) Should this particular zoo have done better with exhibit design and implementing a plan for emergency situations? Should zoos across the world now be on notice as we question the relationship between animals and people?

Finally, the big question, is the life of an ill-behaving preschooler worth shooting a priceless, rare, endangered creature of which there are far fewer than humans. What duty of care was owed to the visiting family? What duty of care is owed to the gorilla?

There seems to be a long string, lately, of animals needing protection not just from "people" but very specific types of human stupidity. Putting a baby bison in the back of your car in Yellowstone because you thought it was cold, for instance. (This brought about the eventual euthanasia of the bison.) Or people releasing aggressive Nile crocs into Florida. It's become a situation where we're not simply talking about vague "environmental" needs to protect animals but now seemingly have to protect specific animals from the very specific and real threat of humans thinking the animal world is there for our amusement rather than respect and thoughtful consideration.

So to answer the question of why America has lost its mind over a gorilla...my two cents is that we're conflicted about how we treat the animal kingdom. Look at our battles over farm reform. Look at the battles over circus elephants, Sea World, no-kill shelters, "aggressive" dog breeds. We're not quite sure what our ethics are. We have a vague idea, but can't seem to articulate the specifics. Don't believe me? Ask someone what they think about Harambe's death. I'm sure you'll hear an opinion.

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