The Real Tragedy of the Cincinnati Zoo

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve probably heard about Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. To sum it up, a 4-year-old boy got away from his mother and fell into the gorilla habitat, and zoo officials were forced to shoot the gorilla to protect the child. The boy sustained injuries when he was being dragged around by the gorilla, but seems to be doing fine. Nevertheless, I’ve seen precious little concern for the boy’s well-being in the midst of the uproar and rage concerning the unfortunate fate of the gorilla. Unfortunate though it may be, however, there are three far greater tragedies that are revealed by our reaction to this event.

1. Americans Don’t Know How to Parent

No, I’m not referring to the poor mother whose child fell into the Gorilla habitat. I’m instead referring to the horde of childless armchair parents second-guessing every moment of the encounter. Its a lack of know-how emerging primarily from our growing refusal to have any personal experience parenting.

Parents do not control their children. We raise them. We teach them. We train them, discipline them, punish them, praise them, nurture them, and guide them. But as my son approaches two years old in a couple of months, it has already become quite clear that “control” was never in the cards. He has a will of his own, and he exercises it. A child’s personality may trim at the fringes of their will—one might act boldly while another is shy; one might act impulsively while another considers—but they all have one; its part of being a person.

Make no mistake, children are people, not machines. As such, the only control they will ever truly be under is self-control. But this is a character trait that needs to be learned. Infants are not born with it. They have to reach a certain age before they even have the capacity for it. And then it is a long road as the ability grows and matures while parents provide it with shape and direction. Even at maturity, self-control never becomes inviolable; it can falter in times of trial and lapse in moments of carelessness. How much less consistent will it be in a child?

Of course, one can physically restrain a child, and parents will always need to do so from time to time. However, this is an option that must be exercised judiciously. I’ve seen a frightening number of people calling for children to be literally leashed in public so that they can’t ever run off—completely oblivious to how belittling that would be. It is only in the direst of circumstances when we choose to restrain a human being all of the time—that’s what prisons are for. This cannot be the go-to method of raising one; a child cannot grow up in time-out. Parents must therefore decide moment-to-moment when to restrain and when not to, and it doesn’t take a child very long to get out of arm’s reach.

That danger is simply the price we pay for continued human existence. A brief look at the world around you should be all anyone needs to confirm that God made a dangerous creation. Eden was a paradise, but clearly it was not the kind of paradise in which nothing could go wrong. Adam chose to listen to his wife instead of God and sent the whole thing off the rails. For humanity, the privilege of choice necessarily entails the risk of failure, and God has given that privilege even to the youngest of us. No matter how much parents might want to keep our children safe and no matter how much we minimize the risks, parenting is always a dangerous endeavor and our offspring are never completely safe. It is only the ignoramus who thinks that a child must never ever be allowed to be out of sight, out of hand, or out of a parent’s control.

2. Americans Don’t Know How to Mourn

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating. When tragedy strikes, we react like mechanics considering why an engine failed. We consider what parts need replacing and what design aspects need to change to make sure it works correctly next time. When a shooting occurs we want to ban guns. When a child goes missing we want to set up total surveillance. When feelings are hurt we want to ban the offending words. We want a rule and a failsafe for every eventuality so that we might someday become the perfect machine that never ever malfunctions.

This was the dream of modernism, and progressives still clutch it tightly to their collective bosom, but society isn’t a machine anymore than a child is. Treating it as one is destructive to us all. If leashing a child as a matter of routine is belittling, so is doing the same to all of society. It destroys our freedom and along with it our humanity. It is only the tyrant who wants to prevent all misfortune, and our growing inability to accept failure is turning all of us into petty tyrants. One can smell this rank totalitarianism every time a tin-pot dictator says things like “Why kill the Gorilla? You should had shoot [sic] the stupid parents!” or “This beautiful cincinnati zoo gorilla shot has paid the price for the parent’s stupidity. If you can’t control your kids in public, then keep them at home!” or even “They shot the wrong gorilla.”

We have not been given the impossible task of fixing the world and making sure nothing bad ever happens to anyone. We have only been given the possible task of loving one another through life’s ups and downs. Calling for children to be leashed and parents to be shot is not loving. This is not time for an unloving and futile attempt to fix something that isn’t a broken machine. It is instead a time to mourn with those who mourn.

3. Americans Don’t Recognize the Beauty of Children

Being upset that a beautiful creature was killed is understandable—it may even be laudable. Nevertheless, this distress has turned very ugly very fast. So many people are so proud to recognize the beauty of this gorilla and signal to world how deeply they feel for its loss (when they had no idea it existed a couple days ago.) And yet, these same people seem too myopic to recognize the beauty inherent in the child who was saved.

As someone who was once an avid gamer, I was always irked when somebody came out and said one of my favorite pass times was “just a video game.” I’m one of those people who believes games rise to the level of art, and so I objected to the diminutive “just” that so many people use as an adjective. Nevertheless, there are times when adding that “just” is entirely appropriate. When my son wants to play ball with me, it’s just a video game. When I have to work to feed my family or to maintain our home, it’s just a video game. When I get to go to church, hear God’s word, and receive the body and blood of my Lord, it’s just a video game. In cases like this, a diminutive “just” is good, right, and proper because it implies nothing more than having perspective and recognizing that some things are more important than others.

It is precisely this kind of perspective that is missing from the droves of people blowing up social media over this incident. Harambe wasn’t “just” a gorilla in the sense that what happened to him was irrelevant or meaningless. Nevertheless, he was just a gorilla in the sense that he was shot so that a child—a childwould live. Humans are greater than animals, and it is truly pathological for men to think otherwise. There are a lot of fools who want to extend human rights to animals and treat them like people, but in the end, treating animals like people only means that you treat people like animals—a fact that is prominently on display in the outrage that calls for leashing children and shooting parents for the sake of a beast.

I’ve never been a big primate fan myself, but I’m comfortable with people finding gorillas to be beautiful and majestic. Nevertheless, doing so without recognizing the far greater beauty and majesty of little children is myopic. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to those who counted men as just another kind of animal:

Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race horse a Post-Impressionist.

All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone.

It is truly an insane sort of history that we’re witnessing today in which children—our own flesh and blood—are hated for infringing too deeply on our own self-centeredness and our preference rests on the beasts who dutifully stay out of sight and out of mind.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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