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In case you somehow missed it, a three-year-old boy climbed into a 450-pound gorilla's enclosure. The Cincinnati Zoo's response team then killed the beloved 17-year-old silverback, Harambe, sparking a growing hue and cry – especially on social media, including demands that the child's parents be prosecuted forthwith. As we saw with Cecil the Lion, it turns out that people get most upset when animals die that have names.
Imagine being the mother of that kid who went into the gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati, plucked overnight from obscurity and turned into Mommy Dearest on everyone’s Facebook pages. Can we all pause – irony here – and remember that she’s human?
The boy’s father is being even more mistreated. TV networks, news sites and petitions are reporting his criminal record and/or questioning whether he should be criminally charged even though he was not at the zoo.
While everyone trashing the parents gains a sense of preening superiority, can we all acknowledge that all parents have, for a few seconds, taken their eyes off their kid? Even if you think the mother (I’ll spare naming her) was negligent, there’s something really disturbing about the cyber-mobbing that increasingly occurs in our society. If you don’t agree, you haven’t experienced it.
People really (and understandably) freak out when majestic animals meet untimely ends because of human intervention, and they cast about for people to blame – and destroy. Social media amplifies it. Everyone joins the frothing pack in what becomes a web colosseum. And people say humans aren’t animals.
I’m upset too that Harambe, the silverback gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo, was killed. However, I’m not convinced it’s the mother’s fault, I know it’s not the father’s fault and I think it’s possibly somewhat the zoo’s fault. If we’re going to play this Internet blame game, why not put the focus on the zoo? And not necessarily on the zoo response team’s unfortunate decision to kill the gorilla, but rather on the fact that a three-year-old boy was able to get inside the 450-pound gorilla’s enclosure. He sneaked past railings and fell 15 feet into the gorilla’s moat. How was this possible?
A primatologist told the media, "The gorilla enclosure should have been surrounded by a secondary barrier between the humans and the animals to prevent exactly this type of incident." Believe it or not, PETA has made the same point.
I can also tell you from experience that people tend to get more upset by animal deaths than human deaths. When I was a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I once wrote a story about a carriage horse that was put down by the police after being hit by a car Downtown. The story ran with a photo, featuring the cops pointing a gun at the horse, that I didn’t see, approve or take. Not a great photo choice by the newspaper, but the people who called in droves were disproportionately vicious. One said I would probably never have children because I "clearly hated animals," while another said I should be fired, for a decision the photo desk made, and that they would do everything in their power to ensure it. I left the newsroom in tears. And that was before social media.
I learned then that people will respond far more emotionally to hurt animals than they will to hurt people because I never received calls when I wrote about homicide.
There’s something good about a society that cares about animals, of course. I sometimes think animals are better than humans; they have far less guile, for starters. The death of Harambe is tragic, and it makes me sick. There’s a natural desire to want to hold someone accountable. "Blame the parent!" becomes the simplistic response.
But the hatred being directed at this mother seems inappropriate and disproportionate. The Internet is impersonal. Even a woman simply with the same name as the boy's mother has been harassed by the cyber-bullies.
As one writer noted about Internet mob justice during the case of the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion and started receiving death threats, "One of the reasons we have a justice system is to punish criminals for wrongdoing, both to serve the abstract ideal of justice and to deter future criminal acts ... Mob justice does not accomplish this, and often does the opposite. One of the biggest reasons is that it is applied extremely inconsistently, even randomly." It’s worth a full read.
Trial by media – and, worse, trial by cyber-media – doesn’t allow the defense a voice, whether it’s a mother whose kid jumped into a gorilla’s moat or any other random person caught in the news cycle and torn to bits by the social media horde. Media trials follow no rules of evidence. They are often slanted toward one side, and they become an echo chamber perpetuated by people barely familiar with – or purposely disregarding – the actual facts. When it comes to death threats, it can even be dangerous. Ironically, the Internet is doing to the mother what Harambe didn’t do to the boy. Worse, on the Internet, a moment of infamy can never be erased, becoming a lifetime of pain.
The mother, a preschool administrator, now faces a police investigation and calls for her prosecution.
One eyewitness, Deidre Lykins, said she heard the mother call out for her son and "had just been next to him when he disappeared." She thinks the mother was not to blame, saying, "This was an open exhibit! Which means the only thing separating you from the gorillas, is a 15-ish foot drop and a moat and some bushes!"
Another eyewitness told CNN the mother was briefly distracted by other children and "suddenly the boy was in the water." The eyewitness heard the boy joke that he was going in. The mother reportedly then admonished the boy. Don’t most parents assume zoo exhibits are impenetrable?
The zoo director defended the barriers’ security, saying kids that small can "climb over anything." No, the barrier needs to be high enough that they can’t. Animal rights activists have filed a complaint against the zoo, arguing the same and pointing out that two polar bears recently got loose.
We all know that kids are fast and curious. We’ve all read those stories of kids who manage to wriggle inside those toy machines in arcades. How kids accomplish that is beyond me.
I’d join the "bad parent!" social media mobbing if the mother had left the boy completely unattended, like those awful mothers who leave their kids in cars when they go into tanning salons. I’m not saying the mother acted perfectly here, either. I am saying the response is disproportionately mean based on known facts.
I wish the zoo had another option short of killing the beautiful creature, who, by some reports, was thrashing the boy around and, by other accounts, held his hand and tried to protect him.
However, I get why the zoo response team decided not to risk the boy’s death for the ape’s life. The video is scary, and zookeepers said tranquilizing the animal could have made the gorilla react violently, not to mention the tranquilizers would've taken several minutes to take effect. This point is also lost to most in the instinctual Internet mob.
Meanwhile, do you know the name of a single Cincinnati homicide victim?
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.