Another Post About Gorillas, Zoos, And Children Falling Into Exhibits…Sort Of

gorilla hand and foot

I’ve read the recent news reports, and a healthy number of reactions from different camps, and yeah, the fact that an endangered animal who was basically minding his own business had to die makes me feel sick. There’s nothing about that story that makes me feel okay, no possible (or realistic) outcome that wasn’t going to be awful. There was one aspect of it that made me think, though, and given that it’s World Environment Week, I thought I might share.

A certain percentage of those who responded to the incident were outraged because Harambe the gorilla was killed despite the fact that he seemed to be holding the little boy’s hands, as if to comfort him, or at least assure him that he meant no harm. The folks involved seemed to anticipate the worst from him. I know almost nothing about gorilla behaviour, and I certainly have no idea what went on in the mind of that particular animal at that particular time. I can’t say one way or another if his intentions were peaceful. What fascinates me is that human beings would assume that Harambe, or any other wild animal for that matter, would want to be friendly to a human.

We hear stories about animals extending olive branches to people all the time. There are dolphins who rescue lost swimmers, lions who rescue children from kidnappers, pigs who warn farmers of violent storms, and others. Maybe the stories are true, maybe they’re exaggerated, but for the most part, I think they might be wishful thinking. Do I think animals aren’t smart enough to show us deliberate kindness? I think they are. Despite our use of tools and linguistic capabilities, there are many instances in which animal brains seem to think circles around ours. Do I think that all animals are mean, or maybe not as nice as humans? Hard nope. I cling to the notion that there are creatures nicer than humans. Let’s be honest, when it comes to niceness, humans don’t set the bar very high. An animal wouldn’t have to try very hard to demonstrate moral superiority. 

And this, fellow jerky homosapiens, is why I can’t just take for granted that Harambe, or any other animal in his situation, would act in the best interest of a human being, even an innocent young human. Quite franky, I don’t see what reason they would have to do so. We humans assume they will. We even expect it. This is the worst form of hubris. We’re bullies. We’re litterbugs. We’re loud, we’re destructive, and we probably even smell horrible, and yet we assume that non-human portion of life on the planet will put out tea and cookies whenever we decide to show up. On a regular basis, we dump all over other creatures, and we want them to like us for it. 

In my second year of university, we were assigned a novel called “Wacousta”. In one chapter, there’s an epic battle in the forest, with settlers battling native populations, blood and gore and general horribleness, a stellar example of our signature human inhumanity. Amidst the carnage, however, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the local workings of nature continue their daily routine as per usual. As hard as it was to read, that scene stuck with me- nature likely doesn’t care about us, not much, anyway. I’m reminded of it every time a tree branch comes down on a car in a storm, or someone gets swarmed by bees. I remember the story whenever I think of environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s “Being Prey”, in which she forgives a crocodile for attacking and nearly killing her. There’s a reason why pathetic fallacy is a fallacy

It’s been an awfully long time since we gave any part of nature good reason to be nice to us. When stories like Harambe’s come up, we shouldn’t assume that there are good intentions at work, not because there can’t be, but because we don’t deserve them. Happy stories of goodwill between our species and others need to be earned, and we’d better hope that other animals are much better at letting go of grudges than we are.

RIP, proud gorilla. I hope we can do better. 

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