In the short video that I saw, you could hear the child’s mother trying to keep the boy calm, trying, I bet, to keep herself calm. “Mommy’s right here. Mommy loves you.”
Almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she was being blamed. We always blame the mother. In this case, the mother of the 4-year-old child who made it into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo was blamed for letting her child get away. She was blamed for saying, “Mommy’s right here,” as if there are some better words she should have said when she was helplessly watching an animal that could kill her child without even trying. Commenters piled on her, calling her negligent and lazy and blaming her for the death of the gorilla. I saw people suggesting she should be shot, and that she should be responsible for the costs incurred by the zoo.
I don’t know any mother who hasn’t had a handful of moments of slow-motion terror when a child went running, fell over in the wrong place, or climbed up on something extremely dangerous. In these moments, turning around for literally a second can make a difference. You might be sitting on the edge of the playground watching, and that won’t stop your child from deciding to leap from the swings without noticing the huge sharp branch beneath him. You might be at the beach applying sunscreen to one child’s back when the other decides to head into the water without telling you.
Kids are kids. Being a parent means teaching them to stay safe, but it’s a process. It takes decades. Four-year-olds run off and do crazy things because that’s how 4-year-old brains develop. Most of the time this is just annoying, but sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and it can be tragic. Like a kid drowned, tragic. Like a kid got hit by a car and died, tragic. Like a kid got hit by a stray bullet, tragic. This child could easily have died, and he didn’t. He came within a hair’s breadth, but survived. He is so, so lucky that that tragedy was averted, but now his family has to deal with the new tragedy—the avalanche of blame coming down on them.
I’m not surprised about the public shaming of this mother, but I’m terrified of it because I think, that could be me. There will probably be moments in the future when I will not be paying attention at the right second, and hopefully everything will be fine, but maybe it won’t. And if something terrible happens to one of my kids it will be the worst day of my life, no question. And if millions of strangers decided to take to social media to excoriate me for the failing I’m already too aware of—well, that will be the worst year of my life, I would guess.
It’s natural to want to blame someone. And it’s natural for 4-year-olds to get into things they shouldn’t. And it’s natural for a gorilla to drag something around roughly (even its own children). But nature isn’t necessarily good. Nature is nature, and sometimes we want to go and wonder at its beauty and power, and sometimes we want it to stop dead before it kills us or someone we love. Sometimes nature pushes us to be the worst version of ourselves, the kind of people with no compassion or care. There’s nothing wonderful about that kind of nature.
It all comes back to zoos for me. They might be a great weekend activity, but they aren’t big playgrounds. They’re prisons. And it’s true we learn from the animals when we see them, and many zoos do important conservation work, but ultimately the animals at zoos are not pets. They aren’t there because they love people. They will act the way they are designed to act, and once in a while, the results will be horrifying.
But we aren’t wild animals. When something like this happens, we don’t have to blame anyone. We can have human compassion for a terrified and traumatized family. We can turn our attention to the people we love, recognizing that every second with them is a tragedy averted. And at the same time we can mourn a dead gorilla, who was only doing what was natural.