The Boy, the Gorilla, and the Outrage: Questions for Reflection

A day after celebrating his 17th birthday at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Harambe the gorilla was killed in order to protect the life of a 4-year-old boy who had fallen into the animal’s enclosure.

Over the past few days the story has become a national phenomenon, inciting thousands of responses on social media, hundreds of news stories, and dozens of journalistic think pieces (like the one you are currently reading).

There is nothing new or noteworthy that could be said about the incident (at least not by me), and yet I believe it provides an opportunity for societal self-reflection. Here are several questions that are worth considering in light of the death of Harambe:

Did we thank God for his providential care over the child? — On her Facebook page, Michelle Gregg, the mother of the boy, expressed her thanks for “God being the awesome God that he is.” No matter what else we think about the event at the zoo, we should join this mother in praising our awesome God for watching over a helpless boy in a time of grave danger.

Are we reflexively perturbed by the knee-jerk outrage? — A child falls into pit with a gorilla. The gorilla dies and the child lives. The story is tragic because an animal had to die. But is it much less tragic than it could have been if the child had been killed.

For many of us, this is all that needs to be said. We are somewhat baffled, then, that the story continues to receive attention. We might be justified in being perturbed by the outrage (I suspect we are), but maybe we should stop and consider what it says about our society’s values and concerns.

For example, if we are being charitable we’ll likely recognize that the expressions of anger, however misplaced, are a positive sign of genuine concern for animal welfare. Could there be more that we are missing? Can we look past the excess emotion and find something praiseworthy about the reaction?

Do we go too far in anthropomorphizing animals? — A frequent comment made after watching the video of Harambe and the child is that the gorilla appeared to be “protecting” the boy. Experts familiar with gorillas, however, say that is not the case and that the child’s life was in danger. Why then do we assume Harambe had noble, maternal motives?

Perhaps because we Americans are conditioned, almost from birth, to ascribe human form or attributes to animals. This is not only true for our pets and “cuddly” animals (how many stories are about human-like bunnies?) but also for dangerous beasts. In movie theaters right now is a live-action remake of The Jungle Book, a story about a boy who is raised by a family of wolves and is friends with a bear and panther. Additionally, moviegoers can see a preview of The Legend of Tarzan, which include a clip of a gorilla (like Harambe) protecting an infant human. Is it any wonder that children would think a dangerous animal would be friendly or that adults would regard the beast’s behavior as nurturing?

Have we reached the point where our culture is confusing fantasy with reality? Is our anthropomorphizing of animals leading us to make dangerous assumption about wild creatures?

Are we too judgmental of parents? — Several witnesses have said the mother of the boy was keeping a watchful eye on her children at the exhibit and, when she realized her son had fallen, she tried to jump in after him.

And yet despite her attentiveness and concern, an online petition at — which currently has more than 400,000 signatures — is asking the Hamilton County Child Protection Services and Cincinnati Police Department to investigate the parents for child neglect:

This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy’s parents did not keep a closer watch on the child. We the undersigned believe that the child would not have been able to enter the enclosure under proper parental supervision.

We the undersigned feel the child's safety is paramount in this situation. We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.

Many of the people who signed the petition likely did so without fully reading it or realizing what they were asking. But most are aware they are accusing the parent of a serious crime and grievous moral offense based on nothing more than assumptions and secondhand media reports. They are calling on the state to investigate the home life of a family based on nothing more than hearsay about a freak accident.  

Any parent who thinks the same couldn’t have happened to them is fooling themselves. Most of us parents have children in our care who, despite our vigilance, managed to escape our notice long enough to engage in harmful or dangerous behavior.

Do we really want to create a norm where every similar incident involves interference into the family by the state? Should we be shaming parents for failing to be perfect?

Should we even have zoos? — Every major American zoo has an emergency response team to deal with crisis situations. The response team is usually comprised of staff members who are trained in firearms and the use of deadly force. Why is such a force necessary? Because untamed animals pose a potential threat to the lives of humans.

Any time there are wild beasts living in close proximity to people there will be the potential need to kill an animal in order to prevent harm to a human. It is therefore reasonable to question whether the benefits of zoos outweigh the inevitable harm that comes to the animals.

Does concern for the animal welfare mean it’s time to limit their exposure to humanity? Would the animals be better off if we traded public zoos for private sanctuaries?

Is it legitimate to compare tragedies? — After every tragedy that involves the death of an animal, there is the inevitable question, “What about the babies?” Exasperated pro-lifers wonder why people appear to care more about the destruction of a beast than they do with unborn humans. Or refugees. Or inner-city youth. Or . . . the list goes on.

Such concerns are not unwarranted, of course. We should certainly care more humans than animals, since it reflects God’s priority. As Jesus said, we are “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31). But he also says that not a single sparrow falls to the ground “outside your Father’s care”(v. 29).

Is it fair to assume that excess attention to animal welfare is a sign of unconcern about human deaths? How can we promote human exceptionalism without denigrating the death of animals at the hands of humans?

Is our outrage undermining human dignity? — Christians should be concerned about the lamentable destruction of God’s creatures. But when does that concern undermine human dignity?

Consider the question of why humans have more intrinsic dignity than other animals. The reason, according to Christian thought, is because our dignity rests upon being created in imago dei, in the image of God. Our dignitas, our worth, is not a characteristic we acquire, an ability we possess, or a condition we can lose. It is based on our being created for the purpose of entering into covenant fellowship with our Creator.

But as I wrote last April, secularists not only deny that this explanation is essential to explaining dignity, but also reject all such “God-talk” as irrelevant and thus excluded from all debate on the topic. Instead, they believe the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals must be rooted solely in non-religious criteria.

But without human exceptionalism rooted in Christianity the search for a moral distinction between humans and animals will be in vain. Inevitably, society will either tacitly accept the Christian answer that humans are metaphysically different or they will have to reject the question altogether. Most, like Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, will choose the latter. In his 1989 essay titled “All Animals Are Equal,” Singer claimed:

The truth is that the appeal to the intrinsic dignity of human beings appears to solve the egalitarian's problems only as long as it goes unchallenged. Once we ask why it should be that all humans—including infants, mental defectives, psychopaths, Hitler, Stalin, and the rest—have some kind of dignity or worth that no elephant, pig, or chimpanzee can ever achieve, we see that this question is as difficult to answer as our original request for some relevant fact that justifies the inequality of humans and other animals. In fact, these two questions are really one: talk of intrinsic dignity or moral worth only takes the problem back one step, because any satisfactory defence of the claim that all and only humans have intrinsic dignity would need to refer to some relevant capacities or characteristics that all and only humans possess. Philosophers frequently introduce ideas of dignity, respect, and worth at the point at which other reasons appear to be lacking, but this is hardly good enough. Fine phrases are the last resource of those who have run out of arguments.

Singer is correct. Once we reject the idea that humans have intrinsic dignity merely because they are humans we must accept, as his title claims, that, “all animals are equal.” Singer, who is always ahead of the bioethical curve, sees no relevant distinction between animals and human infants:

The preference, in normal cases, for saving a human life over the life of an animal when a choice has to be made is a preference based on the characteristics that normal humans being have and not on the mere fact that they are members of our own species. This is why when we consider members of our own species who lack the characteristics of normal human beings we can no longer say that their lives are always to be preferred to those of other animals. In general, though, the question of when it is wrong to kill (painlessly) an animal is one to which we need give no precise answer. As long as we remember that we should give the same respect to the lives of animals as we give to the lives of those human beings at a similar mental level we shall not go far wrong.

If it is considered morally acceptable to experiment on monkeys, then why should we not also experiment on human infants? Similarly, if we would have no qualms about euthanizing a severely deformed newborn orangutan, why would we object if the newborn were a human child?

If all animals are equal, and some animals (e.g., a 17-year old ape) are more equal than others (e.g., a 3-year-old human) then why should we kill an ape to save an infant?