Take A Step Back

A terrible incident occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend. A young boy got through the enclosure and dropped 12' into the Gorilla World exhibit. We've all seen the video and I'm not going to sensationalize this event by posting it here. I will say that the full video is really hard to watch as a mother and as someone who works with animals every day.

As with any tragedy involving animals and humans, particularly young children, emotional responses run strong. It appears everyone has turned to the Internet and social media to arm chair quarterback what should have happened. There are petitions on both "sides" (though I hesitate to use that term because this is way more complex than a black & white issue). Some petitions are calling for criminal charges to be filed against the parents of the child who got through this enclosure and involve child protective services.

Some petitions are looking to shut down the zoo's exhibit, or the zoo itself.

Harambe (credit: Cincinnati Zoo website)

It's too easy to just yell and scream when something goes wrong. It's easy to think we know all the facts.

We really just don't.

The aftermath, though not nearly as global, reminds me of the Save Neville petitions from last year. This was a case that I reference in many of my presentations because of the perfect intersection between the animal and human worlds, and what happens when we just jump into the fray without knowing the full story.

The quick and dirty that was passed around Facebook:

A Change.org petition states that a family with a young child was looking to adopt a dog. They entered a pen with Neville and “other dogs” that were playing. The staff advised the family not to put the child on the ground, but they did anyway and when the toddler grabbed Neville, Neville bit the youngster in the face. As a result of that single bite wound Neville is court ordered to be euthanized.

The facts of the case that were absent, not discussed, or not fully understood by well-intending individuals included how many dogs were in the pen, and some huge educational gaps on the part of the shelter in how people meet their potential dog. The internet sent petitions calling for protective services to be called on the "negligent" parents, and others called for the shelter to get shut down. If you break it apart, it's really another case of not having all the facts. Once all the facts were presented, it turned out there was a much more to suss out, and a much more rational solution. (More on the Neville Case, go here.)

I think the bigger take away here is stop and take a step back. I think we would all do better to listen to the experts, consider there are two families (a zoological family and a family with a small child) who are grieving. We should stop with the online petitions unless there is a full appreciation of every intricacy as to what happened, which includes listening to zoologists and animal behaviorists (people who have earned a PhD in animal behavior). 

Petitions and yelling will not bring back Harambe. Petitions and yelling will not undo the heavy burden of guilt and second-thinking that the family has undoubtedly been dealing with since this incident knowing their child could have died, their child was in danger, and an endangered gorilla is now dead - and now the internet backlash calling for Child Protective Services or shutting down the zoo.

This incident comes at a moment when every week the morning news mentions "tourists approach rare animal and animal is killed," or "person is killed by wild animal while trying to get a selfie."

It is  time for us to look at how we engage with animals.

There have been dozens of news pieces just this year on people walking up to wild animals - a baby dolphin died because people wanted to take a selfie.

A baby bison died when tourists thought the calf looked "cold" and they put it in the back of their truck.

There are many, many more stories just like this, from 2016 alone.

We have to pay attention around animals. We have to respect their right to be on this planet just as much as we are, and if we aren't fully absorbed in the moment and think about the consequences of our actions or inactions, animals or people can die.

This is just as true for dogs, bison, dolphins and 400 pound endangered gorillas. We have to do better.

If the zoo didn't act in the way they did, this boy would likely have died.

As heart breaking as this is, it still could have been much, much worse had the two female gorillas not been called out of the enclosure by quick thinking staff that have taken the time over the years to prepare as much as possible for something like this.

This could have been much, much worse if the child died, too.

This could have been much, much worse if the boy's mother jumped in after her son.

If the parents removed the boy from the exhibit, he might not have gone in the enclosure...but how many of you have had the experience of watching a 3 or 4 year old child? It's HARD. They are fast. They are small. I've had Aislyn disappear on me for a few seconds (which seemed like minutes) and I had my eyes on her as we were walking through a mall. It doesn't take much for an accident to happen, even if you do everything right.

I'm not here to judge the parents - and I'm not here to judge the zoo's actions. Most of you know my stance: let the pros do what they need to do in an emergency. I'm a dog trainer, not a zoologist. I trust Jack Hannah, Jane Goodall, and Thane Maynard in this case as it relates to animals they understand. I would not trust them if they were explaining how to make the perfect pizza sauce - I'd look to someone who is an expert. 

Well, maybe an expert without anger management issues.

I also trust that if there are any safety protocols the Cincinnati Zoo (or other zoos) can employ after this incident, they will do it if it doesn't negatively impact the quality of life of the resident animals. Lastly, I trust that the family involved has learned a great deal and they don't need petitions calling for child protective services. Mom didn't toss her baby into the gorilla pen. It's a wake up call for all of us to be aware of ourselves, our kids, and the animals around us.

I think that we all need to take a step back, and figure out how we can live with animals in the wild, and in captivity, in a respectful manner and take this down a notch so we can have a respectful discussion.


As with any blog posts that might trigger significant emotional response, I will delete any and all comments that are not conducive to the conversation. I will not allow this to be a place to blame anyone involved in this case. It's a tragic story and these are real people, real animals and real employees. This is a safe place. Any name calling, blaming, threats or other comments will be immediately deleted. For those involved in this incident, I'm truly sorry for your experience and I hope some good can come of this event going forward. -M3

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