Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cincy's Gorilla Video and Kneejerks

So now we're all talking about a gorilla.

A 400-pound, 17-year-old Western lowland silverback named Harambe, who was shot to death Saturday in his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Harambe was killed by zoo officials, ostensibly to prevent him from mauling a 4-year-old boy who'd somehow gotten into the gorilla exhibit.

Animal rights activists are furious that zoo officials shot and killed an endangered Western lowland silverback.  It's bad enough that we enslave poor, helpless animals in zoos, and then we deprive them of their very right to live!

After all, any decently-trained gorilla handler should have recognized, apparently, that Harambe was not displaying violent behavior towards the diminutive human.  Gorillas of Harambe's lineage usually stand up and beat their chest - just like in the movies - to display their intent to attack.  Meanwhile, video of the ape with the child shows Harambe exhibiting a protective posture towards the little boy, combined with curiosity, and perhaps even some affection, when Harambe briefly appears to gently hold the boy's hand.

It's that video of the ten minutes leading up to Harambe's killing that's been seen around the world, thanks to social media.  And not only has it gotten animal rights activists in an uproar, plenty of ordinary people are vociferously blaming the child's parents - an unmarried black couple with three other children - for being neglectful.  After all, if it wasn't parental negligence, how else did their toddler manage to get through the exhibit's barriers?  Barriers which, reports say, exceed standard regulations for such an enclosure.

Today, social media is bristling with vitriol, armchair quarterbacking, bickering, and general sensationalism over the event from Saturday.  You see, yesterday was a national holiday here in America, allowing the story to gather steam across the globe.  Now that America's workers are back on the job today, however, Harambe is now truly getting his proverbial 15 minutes of fame.  Which just goes to show you how much social media our country's workers generate on a work day.

Misleading message: 
Standing for Harambe's life...?
Even a pro-life group jumped on the Facebook bandwagon today, with a slick graphic of a silverback and the hashtag #standforLIFE.

Their advertising copy is quick to capitalize on the controversy, even if it's not Harambe's life they're championing:

"The widespread national conversation surrounding this topic brings us back to the underlying question of whether or not we value human life in all circumstances. The bottom line is this: no animal life is greater than that of a human's."

Which is true, of course.  When faced with the immediate choice of protecting human life or allowing an untamed animal to act out their instincts, zoo officials correctly opted for the moral course of action.

Yet was that the question here?

Was the little boy in imminent danger?

Animal rights activists say no, he was not.  They've produced several experts for the media who say that while the gorilla certainly had the capacity to easily kill the child, in those ten minutes documented by the cell phone video, Harambe did not appear eager to kill.  Granted, those must have been an agonizing ten minutes for the people watching the scenario unfold, and Harambe did himself no favors by violently jerking and swinging the boy through the water at one point.  But all that proves is that Harambe is no PR expert.  It doesn't prove that the little boy's life was in imminent danger.

Why didn't the zookeepers recognize that Harambe was not being aggressive towards the four-year-old?  Because it was a Saturday, and all the experts had the day off?  Couldn't one of Harambe's handlers gotten onto a rope and swung down to try and scoop away the little boy?

Shucks - between the gorilla and the boy, wasn't anybody concerned that whomever fired the gun might not be as good a sharpshooter as they turned out to be?  I'm surprised the anti-gun crowd isn't throwing itself into the fray.

Tranquilizer darts had been considered, but zoo officials at the scene worried that they might take too long to work.  And frankly, if Harambe wasn't agitated enough before he got shot, having a painful needle sticking in his backside likely could have really riled him up, genuinely imperiling the boy.

All this isn't to say that everything should have been done to protect Harambe.  The right-to-life folks are being a bit opportunistic with their take on this story, but they are correct:  better to be safe than sorry.

Which means the parents have a whole lotta 'splainin' to do, as Ricky Ricardo would say.  It probably took their son at least a few minutes to get through the enclosure's barricades; they didn't take their eyes off of him "for a moment."  Some media outlets are salaciously referencing the father's criminal past, but those are cheap shots, since we have no idea what correlation a rap sheet has on trying to corral a rambunctious son.

The police say they are investigating the parents to see if child welfare laws were broken.  So let's just leave it at that.

In fact, let's just leave the whole thing to the people of Cincinnati.  This is not the international sensation we have blown it into.  Yes, there's a video of the kid with the gorilla, and it's pretty weird to watch.  But at some point, we're gonna have to learn to live with the instant video-ization of our lives.

Not so we become jaded to things, or calloused, or indifferent.  But we need to remember that incidents happen all the time in which ordinary people are faced with extraordinary things.  Just because something is documented on a video doesn't mean that those of us who watch the video will know the entire context of the event documented by the video.

Yes, it looks pretty obvious that the Western lowland silverback could have pulverized that little boy.  And it's easy to presume that the only way a little boy could have gotten into Harambe's habitat was largely the result of inattentive supervision.

Yet sometimes, the rest of us need to simply move on.  Especially the folks who are excoriating the professionalism of zoo officials in Cincinnati.  And the folks who have never met this little boy or his family.  And especially the folks who feel the need to so vulgarly express their opinions with foul and threatening language.  Too many people harbor a false sense of immunity when they participate in social media narratives, failing to forget that we say as much about ourselves as we do the people and things about which we're writing.

As it is, at this point at least, the story of Harambe is one of several likely mistakes on the part of several humans; starting obviously with the little boy, then probably his parents, then possibly Cincinnati's zookeepers.  But what international importance does this story have?  This is not unilateral proof that all zoos should be banned.  It's not unilateral proof that this little boy's parents should be arrested for anything.  It's great click-bait, but little else.

Indeed, some stories may make for compelling video, but contain little widespread significance beyond the video's content.  As a society, we need to start learning how to recognize the difference between a video that impacts us, in Cincinnati and beyond, and videos that are far narrower in their scope.

Anybody can reflexively knee-jerk.  But keep doing it, and see how quickly you fall apart.

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