The Real 400 Pound Gorilla in the Room

Let’s talk about the gorilla in the room. On this occasion I don’t mean this as a metaphor. I mean it quite literally. I am referring of course to the story of Harambe, the 400 pound gorilla who was shot and killed by Cincinnati zoo officials after a four year old managed to get into his enclosure. It is a sad story. The zoo is a wonderful place. We enjoy watching animals doing their animal things. We are especially enthralled by chimpanzees and apes because they appear almost human. But they are not. And many seem to be forgetting this point.

If we are going to have zoos then sometimes these sort of accidents are going to happen. I assume that the zoo has experts and has people who know gorillas quite well and that they therefore had no choice but to shoot the animal so as to be sure to save the child. No one wants to have to make a choice between lives, between that of their pet dog over a human, but the choice should be crystal clear. Many seem to be losing this distinction. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have signed an online petition demanding justice for Harambe.

It is so easy to judge others. Many are commenting about the mother who lost track of her child for a brief moment. It was in that instant that he managed to find his way into the enclosure. She had other children with her.   I find the vitriol and anger directed at this mother quite bothersome. Anyone who is a parent, and especially those of us who have boys, know that such instances happen. We lost our son at least one time when. My wife had to go the security office to search for him on the TV security cameras. There he was happily exploring the place.

There is something out of whack about the criticism leveled against the mother and the demand for justice for a gorilla. We should be far more forgiving of her. We should be far more understanding of the demands of parenting.

There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to raising kids and more to the point, protecting kids. There is no such thing as 100%. All you can do is hope (and of course pray) that that 1% moment or that 5% time won’t hurt them and that if they slip through some fence other people might rush to their rescue. So we should be saying thank God for the Cincinnati zoo emergency team who saved a child from a 400 pound beast. That seems more like the proper response. Sure we should teach our kids to wear helmets when they ride bicycles and to drive safely and to drink responsibly, but there is never 100% safety and security and even health. Accidents, and God forbid tragedies, occasionally happen.

To the question of justice for Harambe. I have been particularly disturbed by these calls. I cannot figure out why people get more exercised about this gorilla than let’s say the 1000 people who died in the Mediterranean Sea—this week—trying to flee the wars and poverty and starvation in their countries or the killing of a UCLA professor (and one in Minnesota)—beautiful and brilliant minds killed by guns or the 64 people shot and the six people murdered in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend or the 65,000 Long Islanders who are dependent on emergency food—without our government’s aid they would surely go hungry. I could go on. But my point is that there are many things that are more properly deserving of our demand for justice.

This is more accurately the 400 pound gorilla in the room. Why do people care more about a gorilla than other human beings? Now you can say that it’s just easier. There are so many issues and so many people and so many wars and so many worries that it’s just easier to say, “I can’t fix it.” If the president, for example, avoids involving us in the Syrian civil war because it is just too complicated then all the more so those of us here. If the president fails to show any emotion except when children are shot and killed then all the more so those of us here. It’s just plain old easier to get emotionally attached to a gorilla that looks almost like a human being than get wrapped up in the many problems, issues, injustices and tragedies in our world. It is so adorable when we watch them cuddling their young or climbing on fake trees or eating their banana mush. We get attached to them. These emotions distract from the obligations.

We must never turn a blind eye to the suffering of human beings. That is the message of the Bible. Its opening statement, its opening value judgment is that human beings are created in God’s image and that all human beings are descended from the same two parents. You can get wrapped up in the whole creation versus evolution debate or you can focus on the value statement. God creates animals too, but only human beings are a reflection of the divine. You can retort “But I love my dog. And I don’t know or have a relationship with any of those people you mentioned.”

That’s exactly the point. It’s not about love. It’s not about feelings. It’s not about being moved to tears about the tragic death of Harambe. It is about our obligation to others. The tears are not necessarily bad. They are bad when they blind us to our true obligations. It is about our demand that we at least try to fix things and make things better. It is about not turning a blind eye to the suffering of other human beings. It is about all of the true injustices that are screaming for our attention and for us to do at least one small thing to fix them, to make other people’s lives better. That is what we are called to do. We are meant to see a glimmer of the divine in every human being and from that glimmer be called to try to help lift others out of their misery and suffering.

Never get distracted from that primary message. Never lose focus on our true obligation. It is to serve humanity. It is about affirming the sacredness of each and every human life in each and every occasion. It is about the value of a child’s life over a gorilla’s.

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