Blame or Responsibility?

Blame or Responsibility?

CingorilladeathNeither Rin Tin Tin or Baloo are real, folks. The gorilla was and it had to be killed. The mother was negligent. And the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla display isn’t safe enough.

A good portion of my life has been spent teaching the dangers of anthropomorphization: Everyone involved from the zoo to the mother and child, to the authorities now conducting investigations are guilty of treating animals like people.

A human is more important than a gorilla. It’s unfortunate that situations like this force this distinction to be emphasized, because animals are one of the best conduits for leading us to better understandings of our planet’s ecologies. But like many good things sometimes it goes too far.

As a zoo director friend told me yesterday, “That gorilla can crush a coconut with his hand.”

Criticism of the zoo’s crisis response unit comes mainly from animal rights groups with exaggerated or incorrect arguments:

Harambee was not a “mountain gorilla,” of which there are fewer than a 1000 left. He was of the lowland gorilla species, of which there are 50,000 -90,000.

That’s still a critically endangered animal but it’s not the imminent threatened mountain gorilla that many are claiming.

Harambee was not captured in a West African jungle. He was born in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. The vast majority of animals seen today in zoos have been born in zoos.

This is hardly the first time something like this has happened. The most recent was three years ago when a 2-year child fell into a pack of wild dogs in the Pittsburgh Zoo and was mauled to death.

Like with the current Cincinnati gorilla incident, the public was quick to judge the mother was mostly at fault in Pittsburgh. She sued, anyway, and the zoo settled.

Other recent incidents include a loyal animal keeper killed by the tiger she had cared for.

In all cases blame spreads pretty equally between the victim or the victim’s guardian, and the zoo. Zoos’ attempts at modernization have included better exhibits, but these exhibits probably compromise safety for entertainment.

But while the blame may spread around, the responsibility for an incident like this stops squarely at the zoo. They are the organizer, they invited the people with their children to come, and they must prepare for every conceivable eventuality.

Cincinnati did not.

I’ve written before that zoos have neglected safety for gate receipts and media. It was totally appropriate that Pittsburgh paid the family of the killed child thousands if not millions of dollars, even though they were not only to blame.

It’s an awesome responsibility zoos have assumed, and it begins by letting the visiting public understand the danger, and if that means a slightly worse view of the animal, so be it.

What is curious in this most recent Cincinnati case, though, is that it is so similar to the Pittsburgh case with the exception of the animal involved. This was a lowland gorilla. The Pittsburgh case involved wild (painted) dogs.

Wild dogs are actually more endangered ecologically than lowland gorillas, yet the outcry with this incident is considerable sharper.

I think that has to do mostly with the video. There was no video of the Pittsburgh incident. That suggests a large portion of our population doesn’t read, only watches.

That, by the way, is one of the distinctions between a person and a gorilla.