This past Saturday, as many were enjoying the extended weekend with a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, time suddenly stood still when a 4-year-old boy crawled over a barrier and plunged 15 feet into the moat of the Gorilla World exhibit. The screams and gasps of the crowd caught the attention of 450-pound male gorilla Harambe, who was resting in a cave nearby. He quickly moved in on the child.
As a parent, my heart nearly stopped as I scrolled through trending topics on Facebook and caught the headline. I instantly pictured each of my children by face as I thought about this young child’s mother, helplessly watching her son being tossed, grabbed, and dragged by the massive 17-year-old silverback gorilla.
The video was almost too much to stomach. There were moments when the gorilla seemed to stand guard over the child, protecting him from the jeering crowd above. The momentary confidence this gave onlookers quickly disappeared when the animal dragged the 4-year-old through the water of the moat as if he were a play toy.
The end result was a move to put the animal down — a decision confirmed and agreed upon by many zoological experts, including Jack Hanna from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, went as far as to acknowledge that if the situation arose again, he would make the same decision. Human life always takes precedent over the life of an animal, regardless of the situation.
Now I consider myself an animal lover; I think wildlife is a vital part of the landscape of our world. But I agree with the zoo’s decision to put Harambe down. The evidence on the video confirms what many believed: This boy’s life would have ended at some point had the Dangerous Animal Response Team not made the decision to end the life of the animal.
What peaked my attention, however, was not the outpouring of anger from animal rights organizations, but rather the criticism of both the mother of this young boy and the Cincinnati Zoo. Many turned to Twitter and Facebook to express their belief that the boy’s mother, Michelle Gregg, should face criminal charges. Others have said the zoo should press charges. As for the zoo itself, media representatives at yesterday’s press conference in Cincinnati questioned Maynard on the safety of the barriers at the gorilla exhibit. One reporter even asked how a child that young could make it into an exhibit.
My response, as the parent of six active children who were all once 4 years old: “Have you ever parented a 4-year-old?”
When my son, who is now 13, was just 2 years old, my wife was playing with him in our home office. We live in a 100-year-old home with 9-foot high walls throughout. Lining the east wall of our home office is a set of book shelves from floor to ceiling. As my wife turned for a second to pick up two more books to read to him, he quickly scampered up the book shelf. When she turned around, he was one shelf away from the top.
Then, when he was 4, they were at a neighbor’s house when she suddenly couldn’t find him. Before he wandered out to the middle of a busy road, she pulled him back to safety. The entire incident took less than a minute to unfold. I watched him climb the side of a full-sized van (standing over 7-feet high) at age 5.
Needless to say, our child was, and still is, active. He was always moving as a little boy. And we were diligent in keeping our eye on him. If you know us, you know we are borderline helicopter parents. We struggle with letting our teenagers ride their bikes around the block without us watching. This was exponentially greater when they were younger.
Parenting a 4-year-old, especially an active one, is hard work. Even the most diligent parents have their hands full. Plus, children are driven. They want what they want, and often, they’ll ignore their parents’ instructions and go get it. On Saturday, one witness, heard the boy tell his mom, “I want to swim with the gorilla.” She said the mother replied, “No you’re not!” And in a flash, he was in the exhibit. Take a 4-year-old’s curiosity and multiply that by a ton of energy and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the incident that happened on Saturday.
As Maynard explained during yesterday’s press conference, the Cincinnati Zoo has been in existence for 143 years. In that time, they’ve never had an incident like the one that occurred on Saturday. “The barriers are safe. The barriers exceed any required protocols,” he told the press. I myself remember, during my years as a child growing up in Cincinnati and visiting the zoo, how safe they were.
But, as Maynard went on to say, “The trouble with barriers is that whatever the barrier, some people can get past it.” There’s not a barrier on Earth that we could not overcome, or at least attempt to, if we put our mind to it — even for a child. I’m raising a child who has actively put his mind to doing just that many times in the past.
You can’t place the blame on a mother of an active 4-year-old who was bound and determined to go exploring. Nor can you blame professional zoo keepers, or the boundaries that contain the animals. Mostly because 4-year-olds do these types of things — all the time, in fact. Maybe not to the degree that this 4-year-old boy did on Saturday, but they do. Give me any curious child and I’ll give you a list of possibilities that are often out of the control of parents. As parents, we do the best we can with our children, but sometimes things happen and we are helpless to stop them. All we can do when this happens is react to the best of our ability.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Gregg shared, “As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen.”