Gorilla vs. Mother: Critical Commentary


In this post, I won’t even try to invent any sort of pseudo-fiction or parody, I’ll just go straight to the point and discuss what’s on my mind directly.

No doubt everyone has seen by now the story of the child in Cincinnati Zoo having fallen into the gorilla pit. For those who haven’t, I’ll just run through the facts again.

A few weeks ago, a child, visiting the zoo with his mother, fell into the gorilla enclosure, having presumably climbed past the tourist barriers without his mother noticing. Amateur and security video footage show that shortly after he fell in, one of the gorillas in the pit went up to him, pushed him to his feet and then proceeded to thrash the little boy around. This led to the zoo authorities making a decision to shoot the gorilla with real bullets, not a tranquilizer dart. This choice was made because a tranquilizer dart would have taken too long to take effect and the gorilla could have harmed the boy significantly more in the intervening minutes. The gorilla was therefore killed to save the child.

Since then, social media have exploded into oversimplified, insufficiently critical outrage and opinions on this issue. Unfortunately, as is so often the case on social media these days with emotional issues such as this, there has been little to no room for debate, the entire issue being dominated by a few distinct trends, which I will cover here:

  • excessive political correctness, oversimplification and a lack of critical thinking (worldwide)
  • typical US approach “deifying” children and absolving them of any and all guilt or responsibility
  • the management of civil safety and security in the USA

I’ll actually cover these three points in the reverse order, because the first one is the one I want to insist on and will need more space to discuss.

How Safe is Safe? The Safety/Practicality/True risk Trade-off


So let’s start with the safety and security culture in the US. In a country with such a strong emphasis on private enterprise and low government involvement in economics, there have nonetheless been certain noticeable behavioral trends. One of these has been the establishment of a system of baby-sitting and mollycoddling of the entire citizenry.

For example, roads contain not only speed limit signs but also “recommended” speed signs. Ridiculously specific safety warnings are present on virtually any good or service on the market to ensure that people use them in the proper way. Magnificent, beautiful natural sites and tourist attractions are horribly disfigured by tourist walkways, barriers, etc, making each such place look more like a military bunker than the natural beauty it really is.

In most of these cases, the reason behind it is quite simple: legal precedent and an incredibly ridiculous legal system. Long story short (this isn’t the point of the post… more on that another time), it is so absurdly easy for a person to sue someone else for anything, including said person’s own bone-headed errors, that the entire market is drowned in warnings detailing and forbidding all possible misuse of goods and services and denying any legal liability for such cases.

I bring this up for a reason: this also of course holds true of zoo enclosures. In this case, the zoo probably compromised on the budget, aesthetics, user experience and overall calculated risk still posed with the precautions taken. This does not mean the zoo’s precautions were bad, after all this is the first such significant case to hit the media. This was an improbable occurrence, and extra prevention would doubtless have ruined the experience for the visitors and led to much lower profitability for the zoo, without significantly (or even perceptibly) reducing the risks.

Some people will no doubt lay the blame for these events on the zoo’s precautions (though I have not yet, to this day, seen a single word about this). Let’s move on to the next point.

All Hail the Child Gods

Another point in play here is the typical US view of children. Having grown up in the US myself, I can confirm this point on so many different aspects.  Restaurants all over, even many rather fancy adult-oriented restaurants, include special children’s menus or alternate buffets or even play areas. Child labor is an absolute taboo, and the only way it is not seen as suspicious is if the child involved is starting his own lemonade stand or car washing / lawn-mowing initiative in the typical entrepreneurial spirit omnipresent throughout the country. Even something as simple as raising your voice (let alone a hand) to justly reprimand a child is seen as gross parental misconduct and can even be reported to the police.

The country and population do everything possible to ensure that children go where they belong, which is school / daycare, some extra-curricular activities, and little more. The general perception seems to be that children are gods, living in their own special heaven, until the moment they turn 18, and that until that time the entire adult community is entirely at their service, there to cater to children’s every whim and wish and need.

This essentially means that children cannot be held accountable for anything, and worse still, that parents are encouraged to raise their children to not be accountable for anything. Is it any wonder that two-thirds of parents think their children are spoiled? Once again, having grown up there myself, I can confirm that it’s not just an impression, it’s a definite trend. Most children not only ARE spoiled, they carry it with them wherever they go and wear it as a mark of status.

Two reasons prompt this thought: One, that in this kind of context, it should come as no surprise that a child should want to enter the gorilla pen and refuse to take no for an answer, or even take the initiative himself whatever the risks (which would of course be poorly understood – after all, most of the time the gorilla’s just sitting there minding its own business). And two, that as a result of this entire context, nobody in the USA would even consider apportioning any bit of blame to the child for disregarding the rules or his mother’s instructions, for fear of sounding insensitive, cruel or excessively harsh. And this leads me to my next, and major, point.

Pernicious Consequences of Political Correctness

The double standards of political correctness

The USA is, without a doubt, the single country I know with the biggest political correctness problem. No doubt you all know what that concept is: an attempt to artificially redefine language and behavior in such a way that certain specific targeted groups are shielded from any form of offense or discomfort. Though indeed well-intentioned, this has gone overboard in many ways in recent years, and even backfired. For example, the recent implementation in many US colleges of so-called “safe zones”, places where anyone belonging to a minority community can take refuge to avoid being exposed to any form of discrimination or slurs, and even in some cases to confrontations with college or municipal authorities because an innocuous statement was interpreted as offensive, or because a journalist had entered the safe zone during a student protest, etc.

The fact is, political correctness as it stands today can probably be more accurately defined, in the words of comedian Anthony Kavanagh, as “a collective hypocrisy preventing us from calling something by its actual name”. And this is true. We are led into a habit of constantly denying the true nature of what we are dealing with, simply because we feel a constant pressure to integrate it into “our world”. This is at best, blinding us to many undeniable issues that sometimes need to be addressed simply because we address it in a less visible way, and at worst, massively backfiring by ultimately imposing an assimilationist agenda on minorities, thus encouraging further discrimination when members of said minorities choose to maintain their diversity (discrimination which goes unpunished, precisely because those who would be likely to do so no longer see it).

Don’t get me wrong. I perfectly agree with the original intention of political correctness, just as I perfectly agree with the original intention of other measures like affirmative action. But I think it’s safe to say that, like affirmative action twenty years ago, political correctness is showing that its side-effects actually can do more harm than good.

Let’s just take an external example. Let’s take something that, because we’re not living in it full-time, is more easily visible from an outside perspective. Because of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, political correctness has effectively forbidden us from speaking out against anything the State of Israel does as far as human rights violations (not only against Palestinians and Arabs but also against Jews), even if it’s staring us in the face. (Having twice been to Israel myself, I can vouch for the insidious system in place over there). We’ve gone from “don’t be openly anti-Semitic” to “don’t say a word against even just Israeli policy, let alone against the actual people running the place”, all because of an excess of political correctness. This is turning our attention away from the real problems to fix, at best, out of genuine ignorance, at worst, because this has morphed into a subconscious, unshakable bias.

End of the example. The point is, the same effect, even less visible because we swim in it all day rather than merely seeing it now and again on TV from the outside, exists in our Western societies, and it is doing us more harm than good. I’m not saying here that we should repeal the Third amendment entirely, I’m just saying that closing our minds to some very necessary debates and issues is keeping us blind and insensitive to the real problems or to real solutions.

The Dominant, Politically Correct Positions on Boy vs. Gorilla

The way I see all the reports online regarding this issue, everyone from private individuals to the press to various authorities seems to gravitate to one of two viewpoints:

  • It’s the mother’s fault, she didn’t watch her kid better, and it got the gorilla killed
  • It’s the zoo staff’s fault, why did they have to kill the gorilla?

with, for some reason, a net preference for the former.

I would like to point out two key points here:

  • everybody seems to feel sorry for “that poor, poor gorilla”, who after all was about to kill the child (funnily enough, the only one not adhering to that opinion seems to have been the child’s own mother…)
  • Little Boy Almighty isn’t even getting a passing mention in this issue, an attitude reflecting the deification of children (mentioned above)

Accidents Don’t Just Happen

The blame game

Contrary to what the common saying says, accidents don’t just happen. They don’t just pop up out of nowhere. They’re the result of a certain chain of critical events, all of which are necessary, in the right order. By this logic, removing a single event from this chain is enough to prevent the accident from happening in the first place (at least, in the way it did happen – other accidents might still happen).

Let’s set the terms straight: the accident here, whatever the Internet might say, was NOT the killing of the gorilla, but the child entering the gorilla pit in the first place. The killing of the gorilla was a consequence, and we will discuss it shortly.

In this case, the events leading up to the accident are:

  1. During the exhibit’s construction at the zoo, probability models judge that the chance of this particular entry occurring is low enough to justify more visitor-friendly and less costly and visually ruinous tourist barriers.
  2. The mother does indeed lapse to a degree in her watch over her child. Understandable in the sense that she is likely also enjoying the view. Yes, there were other ways she could have kept tabs on the boy, but sometimes it only takes a second.
  3. The child, either out of genuine ignorant curiosity or out of real defiance of his mother’s instructions, climbs past the barrier and ends up in the gorilla pit, where the gorilla then proceeds to thrash him around.

As we have seen above, all it takes is for any one of these three events not to have happened for the accident not to have happened at all. All three can be mitigated to a degree. The zoo had perfectly reasonable expectations, having insisted on the rules (either by briefing parents on entry or with signs all over the place), that even the relatively limited barriers would suffice to keep children out of the exhibits, which was already judged a highly unlikely possibility in the first place. The mother, as she herself stated, can very well have been busy looking out after her other children, or digging in her handbag, looking at her phone, taking a picture, etc, and could have let go of her son’s hand for just a few seconds, which can be all it takes. The child himself could have just been curious to examine something else between the fence and the pit, and fallen in by accident.

Basing one’s opinions on such issues purely on the officially accepted politically correct view is dangerous, ignorant and very limiting. One needs to know the facts in order to even begin to come to a conclusion about the events. As it is, the fault lies partly with all three parties: the zoo, the mother and the child.

As for the rants about the gorilla having been killed, I only wish to remind people that the zoo keepers had to make a very tough decision. Yes, they took a gorilla’s life. Yes, gorillas are an endangered species and this is obviously not good for their numbers. However, one must keep in mind a few things:

  • The zookeepers made a tough decision based on an immediate emergency (the boy’s life was at risk and his mother would hardly have forgiven them if they hadn’t done something)
  • They knew that a tranquilizer dart would take too long to take effect, possibly long enough for the gorilla to keep harming and maybe kill the child
  • Don’t forget that this gorilla was a significant source of income for the zoo, as a breeder and as an attraction, and came to the zoo after a significant investment, so even from a purely materialistic standpoint, this was a hard decision to make


Ultimately the questions I ask the public are: how much do you value a human life compared with a gorilla’s life? Is it fair to sacrifice a boy for the safety of a gorilla? Is it fair to sacrifice a gorilla for the safety of a boy? Once the boy was in the pit, was there any other approach guaranteed to ensure the safety of both the gorilla and the boy? Would you react the same way if you were in the mother’s position? in the zookeepers’ position? Would you have done anything differently in the mother’s position, without the hindsight we obviously now have?

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