Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sometimes Bad Things Happen to Good People (and Gorillas)

Last Saturday, a four year old boy on a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo with his family somehow managed to get through a barrier and then fell fifteen feet into a gorilla enclosure. There he attracted the attention of a male gorilla named Harambe, who (perhaps in part agitated by the shouts of the frightened crowd) dragged the boy by his foot, back and forth across the enclosure. When zoo keepers were unable to lure the gorilla away from the boy, they made the decision to shoot and kill Harambe lest he kill the child before they were able to tranquilize the gorilla.

Needless to say, no one wanted things to end this way. The parents certainly did not want their child to fall fifteen feet and then be dragged around by a four hundred pound gorilla. The zoo did not want to have to kill one of their prized animals. Even the two non-rational actors in the situation -- the four-year-old and the gorilla -- surely didn't want things to go the way that they did.

However, we live in a time and place in which there is a particularly deep belief that bad things should not happen. Thus, if something bad does happen, it's because someone is to blame. Some say the zoo was negligent. And others, a seemingly increasingly vicious group, have concluded that it was obviously the fault of the child's parents.

The internet was already boiling with people sure that someone whose child slipped away and got into a gorilla enclosure must be a terrible parent when the mother involved made the mistake of trying to explain herself in a Facebook posting. By Monday the threats and harassment of the family had become so bad that the Cincinnati Police Department felt it necessary to step up protection and monitoring of the situation.

Some of this is, of course, simply the kind of internet mob mentality which seems to be a fixture of the modern social media world. People feel that they are "doing something" about an upsetting situation by venting online and engaging in online harassment of people they perceive as bad. But what's more significant, I think, is the need to see the parents as bad in the first place.

Perhaps one element in this is that people do not want to think that a bad thing could happen to them. "I'm a good parent." The thinking goes. "I watch over my kids. I do my best. I don't want to think that anything bad could ever happen to my children." And so, to keep that fear at bay, it's necessary to think that anyone to whom something bad does happen must somehow have asked for it.

Maybe these parents were negligent, and maybe they weren't. There's no way for the denizens of the internet to know. Whether the boy's parents could have kept a better eye on him or not, the fact is that no situation is foolproof. I doubt that any parent, no matter how conscientious has never had a child slip off for a moment or do some unexpected, dangerous thing. The thing is that these uncounted slips, these near misses, are usually just that: misses or very minor accidents.

Most of the time, these near miss events result in nothing, just like the other near misses in our lives: the knife which falls from the counter but just misses your foot, the car you see in your blind spot just a moment before you start to change lanes, the deer who hesitates on the side of the road but then doesn't jump out in front of you. Perhaps some perfect degree of care could have made each of these near misses less likely to happen or less likely to go badly. But it's usually not the degree of care or preparedness which is responsible for saving us, it's the fact that most bad things that could happen don't. There are constant openings for catastrophe which don't quite result in calamity. Often we learn from these to be more careful in some way, but even so, the near misses are made less frequent, not completely eliminated.

It's not primarily virtue or preparedness which determines whether a near miss turns into a real life catastrophe. It's mostly chance.

So yes, the zoo should look at their enclosure designs, and parents should be mindful of where their children are. If these things can make an incredibly unlikely accident even more unlikely, that's good. But at the same time, it's important to realize that sometimes fate just deals everyone a really bad hand. Unlikely bad outcomes are still just that: unlikely, not impossible. And it's really not possible to work every single possibility for catastrophe out of a situation.

Sometimes bad things happen, and it's not because someone is at fault. It's just because sometimes bad things happen.


Itinérante said...

Thank you for putting things in perspective, as always!

Emily J. said...

The mob mentality of the internet frightens me. Who are these people and why do they care so much and why are they so angry? Have they never made a mistake? I fear for that poor mother's mental health - and for other mothers, including myself, who now have yet another anxiety to add to the list of things that might attract negative attention. The child will probably grow up to be a fearless explorer and scientist like Louis Leakey or Jane Goodall, or he will be mentally traumatized by his mother's breakdown in response to all the internet shaming and blaming.

Agnes said...

It's frightening how people care more for animals than for humans.

I think all parents have experienced what you say about most potential catastrophe situations not realizing as tragedies. The people who think they can control every situation are just wrong.
We - and our children - do have guardian angels, and it's a good thing to remember them. And Providence.

JoAnna Wahlund said...

Did the mother make a Facebook post? The only ones I've seen have been from eyewitnesses.

Michael said...

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo—
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know—or at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so—
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim's especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!

He hadn't gone a yard when—Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted ``Hi!''

The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
``Ponto!'' he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion's name),
``Ponto!'' he cried, with angry Frown,
``Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!''
The Lion made a sudden stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper's Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ``Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!''
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James's miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

by Hilaire Belloc

Enbrethiliel said...


"At least WE are better parents. Nothing WE ever did led to the death of a gorilla!"*

The furore over Harambe the gorilla reminds me of the same over Cecil the lion. People who never really did anything "to save the animals" suddenly found redemption in condemning someone arguably "more evil" than they. It's pure scapegoating: laying your sins (as an environmentalist or as a parent) on the head of a poor victim and driving him into the wilderness in order to feel renewed . . . or at least relieved. Never mind that these parents weren't even, as you point out, deliberately neglectful.

*In case it wasn't clear, this isn't what I'm reading into your post, Darwin! It is what I'm getting from everyone who has rushed to condemn the parents.