A Gorilla, A Boy, and the Decline of Human Dignity

In Animals, Children, Environment, Life, People, Politics by Stephen M. Vantassel0 Comments

On May 29, 2016, a 3 or 4 year-old boy (sources differ on his age) was visiting the Cincinnati Zoo with his mother. As boys sometimes do, he got into trouble. In this case big trouble, life threatening trouble. He fell into the enclosure that housed a 450 pound male silverback gorilla named Harambe (for the meaning of Harambe click here).

It’s amazing the child survived the 10-foot fall into the enclosure. The water in the enclosure’s moat must have broken his fall. The danger was not over though. The gorilla approached the child, grabbed him, and dragged him around the moat like a toy. Bystanders and zoo officials were horrified. Zoo officials decided that the best course of action was to shoot the gorilla, which they did.

Harambe died.

The boy survived with only minor injuries.

In a normal culture, there would be a big sigh of relief followed by an appropriate investigation about the enclosure’s ability to keep people out. But as I have been writing for some time, we are not living in a normal culture. We are living in a time where animals have been elevated in status as humans have declined in status. Just look at the Honoring Harambe Facebook page. The URL says “Justice for Harambe” which suggests to this writer that some people think that Harambe’s rights were violated. Whatever the actual reasons were behind the choice of the URL, it is somewhat disturbing that 168,189 people liked the page (as of June 19, 2016).

Really folks?

Meanwhile people are being shot in Chicago, and now more recently in an Orlando mass shooting, and we are spending our time thinking about a gorilla?

Consider PETA’s blog which was titled, “Gorilla Pays with His Life for Others’ Negligence.”  While the blog was actually pretty tame, the title shows contempt for others, who the “others” are isn’t stated.

Change.org has a petition for what is being called “Harambe’s Law. The law would punish zoo visitors whose negligence resulted in the injury or death of an endangered species. It has 215,473 supporters as of June 19, 2016.

Interestingly, in both of these sites, the gorilla’s behavior is not blamed.

You may wonder why should the gorilla be blamed, the gorilla is just acting like a gorilla. Certainly, that is one way to look at it. The problem is the animal rights protest industry argues that humans shouldn’t treat animals like animals because we are just animals too.

So the question is, if humans are just animals then why are we held to moral account and other animals aren’t?

Couldn’t people say that we, as animals, are just acting like animals, and making mistakes? Why don’t people argue that the gorilla was complicit in his own killing because he should have known to leave the boy alone or at least to be able to follow the orders of his keepers?

If you are shaking your head, thinking “but Stephen, that is not how it works.” I would simply ask, then why is it that the animal rights position is heads the animal wins and tails the human loses?

I think I know the answer. But do you?

This article was originally published on The Stewards Blog.

Featured image courtesy of Brian Ford/FlickrCC 

Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity. He specializes in environmental ethics. His book, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009) explains why an animal rights perspective on animals fails to be environmentally responsible.

Leave a Comment