Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Zoo Hate and Human Hate

The social media fallout from the recent tragedy involving the euthanizing of a male Lowland Gorilla after a child entered its enclosure has surprised and shocked me, and that is just my reaction to my friends, some of whom I know personally outside of Facebook. The emotionally-charged reactions run the gamut from those who think zoos themselves are an atrocity to the other end of the spectrum claiming that the planet would be better off without people.

© Heidi Eaton

I found myself outraged and disgusted for a number of reasons. I used to work at the Cincinnati Zoo. Several of my former colleagues still work there. My spouse works with gorillas here in Colorado Springs. There but for the grace of God and responsible zoo-goers goes her.

I have attended regional and international gorilla-keeper conferences with her and can attest to the fact that these people pour their heart and soul into their work. Every zoo's gorilla population is closely monitored, every male and female pairing scrupulously evaluated before the animals are ever introduced. The loss of a single captive gorilla has to the potential to throw the whole world zoo community into chaos. Keepers witness things you would never want to see, and then learn how to prevent future episodes like them. They share every experience, from exhilarating and positive, to tragic and devastating, because it is vitally important to do so.

Some people without experience in zoos have been quick to attribute blame for this incident to the zoo. Zoos are inherently risky places for both employees and visitors, but every effort is made to protect guests while furnishing increasingly innovative immersion exhibits. Some animals are, obviously, too dangerous for direct contact, even by keepers, and gorillas are among them. The bottom line, however, is that it is not a zoo's responsibility to protect you from your own reckless behavior, no matter what age you are.

Meanwhile, zoos are critical to efforts aimed at conserving endangered species, especially in the sense of genetic diversity, and raising not only infant animals but also raising the awareness and appreciation of zoo visitors to the plight of the captive's wild brethren. To suggest that (formally accredited) zoos have no place in our world, or are inhumane and cruel, is simply ludicrous. Remember those gorilla keeper conferences? One topic always held in high priority is "enrichment," to insure that captive animals are constantly stimulated physically and emotionally.

My one failing in this discussion is that I am not a parent. It is telling that the people most incensed at the accusations suggesting the mother (and father?) are to blame in this tragedy, are themselves mothers or fathers. The argument invariably goes something like "I can see someone losing sight of their child in an instant, it has happened to me." Perhaps. What do I know, I'm an only child, raised mostly by an overprotective mother in an age that lacked electronic distractions. For better or worse, we are a society that demands accountability; because we so often don't get it, from our government officials to our next door neighbor, we explode with even greater hostility over the next time.

The whole concept of a human life being more important than the life of another organism I find troubling. Religion is largely responsible for conditioning us to believe our species is somehow "above" others, but the fact is that we, too, are animals. We act selfishly, as any other animal does, but we have gone to extremes to disguise that selfishness as, say, "what's in the best interest of the child" in divorce cases. Every other species would love to be in our bipedal shoes, able to limit mortality factors like predators, parasites, and diseases, while eliminating competition for resources and distributing itself widely over an infinite variety of habitats.

So, while it is certainly an extremist notion to suggest that the planet Earth would be better off without Homo sapiens, it is at least somewhat encouraging to see that we might be approaching a consciousness of "species equality." Even if this does not mean granting "rights" to other species, we are guaranteed in the U.S. the right to the "pursuit of happiness." Those of us whose happiness is found in nature are now deprived on one more gorilla.

The fact is that whatever our opinion of this tragic episode, we are going to have personal blank spots. Not everyone knows what it is like to be a zookeeper. Not everyone is a parent. Nobody knows what it is like to be a gorilla in captivity.


  1. Well said. But I really do think that zoos need to up their game in protecting exhibits from kids and from drunk idiots. After each one of these intrusions, the zoo will reevaluate and find a way to increase protections. This is a perfect time for all zoos to take a second look - now. And let the public know that they are taking this seriously.

    With that said, as the daughter of zoo keeper & chimp trainer (1948-1962), I appreciate all who dedicate so much blood, sweat, and tears into the care of these magnificent animals. We need more people like your wife.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind compliments, but thank you even more for sharing your own perspective. :-)