Holy Cows and Sacrificial Silverbacks

What the killing of Harambe the Gorilla tells us about the forces that unite and divide us

Stock photo of a gorilla. Not Harambe.

Don’t worry. This will not be another post casting blame or offering ethical analysis in the form of “could haves” and “should haves.” Instead, I want to make sense of the human reactions in the aftermath of the killing of Harambe the gorilla to save a human boy. What lessons can we draw from the unfortunate incident? And where do we go from here?

In case you missed it:

On May 28, 2016, a day after his 17th birthday, Harambe was shot to death after a three-year-old boy entered Harambe's enclosure. The incident was recorded by a bystander and uploaded to YouTube, where the video went viral. Zoo director Thane Maynard stated, "The child was being dragged around ... His head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing. The child was at risk." Another expert denied this, saying Harambe was not a danger to the child. — Source: Wikipedia
The Real Harambe. Source: Cincinnati Zoo

The internet erupted upon hearing news of the incident. Many people mourned the death of Harambe. Others blamed the zoo and/or the boy’s parents for the incident. Others came out in support of the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla to save the boy.

Animal rights activists used the incident to talk about the evils of zoos keeping wild animals in captivity. Meanwhile, people concerned about the refugee crisis in Europe pointed to the supposed hypocrisy behind the outpouring of sympathy for a dead gorilla and the lack of sympathy or action in the aftermath of hundreds if not thousands of humans drowned in the Mediterranean.

Source: Ian Bremmer on Facebook

And because this is the United States in 2016, things also got real racial real fast. The internet outrage machine went into full-on mob mode against the boy’s family, who happen to be African-American.

Angry netizens overwhelmed the boy’s mother with negative comments after she posted on Facebook about the incident, which resulted in her deleting the post and deactivating her account. They also went after her employer’s Facebook page, causing that to be taken down as well. Others dug up the boy’s father’s criminal past as supposed evidence of bad parenting.

More than half a million people have signed a Change.org petition demanding that child protective services investigate and possibly remove the child from his home. In the meantime, a police investigation has concluded that the boy’s parents will not face criminal prosecution for the incident.

Writing in Cosmopolitan, Brittney Cooper points out that “[t]he outrage stands in stark contrast to the treatment of white mothers in similar circumstances.”

It’s one of the ways that race shows up in conversations that don’t seem to be about race at all. Rutgers political theorist Shatema Threadcraft has argued that African American parents are subjected to “targeted racial bias in child removal policy and concentrated child welfare agency involvement in African American neighborhoods.” The ways in which these policies and the agencies that enforce them interact with black communities effectively “place burdens on black parents not experienced by other parents in the wider society.” — Brittney Cooper in Cosmopolitan

African-Americans have also historically been dehumanized and caricatured as monkeys and apes in racist narratives. The fact that many people rallied behind the gorilla while a black child’s life was in danger certainly revived echoes of this painful trope.

Meanwhile, our relationship with animals, and especially our great ape cousins has been evolving. More and more people are feeling a kinship with them and advocating for their rights. The internet is awash with photos and videos of cute and exotic animals vying for our attention. There is a movement to grant legal personhood and rights to great apes, with jurisdictions around the world evolving their laws in this direction. Animal rights activists have recently tried twice in one week to storm a Bernie Sanders rally.

In some ways, we can think of the mob behavior against the boy’s family as the dark side that comes with the successes of the environmental and animal rights movements. These movements have highlighted charismatic macrofauna like gorillas and polar bears to spark popular empathy and action for environmental issues. But, as pointed out by Paul Bloom in the Atlantic last year, there is a dark side to empathy. Caring deeply about one person, or in this case, a gorilla, “can foster baseless aggression towards another.”

But this is not a new phenomenon. In many cultures around the world, there are “holy cows,” endangered or otherwise, that are considered sacred or protected, either by tradition, religion, and/or law. There are taboos against harming or killing certain animals. For many, the killing of Harambe violated one of these taboos.

On the other hand, in a post on Scary Mommy entitled “Yes, Child Trumps Gorilla. Can’t Even Believe That Actually Needs To Be Said,” Maria Guido writes:

This is not to say that Harambe wasn’t a beautiful, majestic animal. He was. It’s terrible that he had to be shot. But he had to be shot, as determined by professionals who actually realized that the life of a HUMAN CHILD trumps the life of a gorilla. For fuck’s sake, I can’t believe I actually have to type that sentence. We live in a world where we have more empathy for a gorilla than a human child.

But we have seen that there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, who disagree with Guido. They may find her assertions an example of speciesism.

We are witnessing an unfortunate and toxic collision of forces. On one side, there are those who seek to subjugate a group of people with a narrative that dehumanizes them by comparing them to animals. On the other side, we have those who want to elevate the rights of animals, and punish humans who violate these rights.

The case of the boy trapped in an enclosure with a silverback gorilla presented a clear and present danger and a terrible ethical choice. But most situations in our everyday lives are not so zero-sum.

Moving forward, how might we work simultaneously to combat racism to ensure the true equality of humankind while also working to fight speciesism to ensure the rights and survival of other forms of life on our island earth?

Harambe’s name comes from the Swahili word harambee, which means “all pull together,” and refers to the East African tradition of community self-help events like fundraisers or development activities. In honor of the life and death of Harambe, how might we all pull together rather than tear each other apart?

Drawing of a Gorilla. Photo taken by the author on a trip to Rwanda. Artist unknown.
Instead of railing against those who killed Harambe, we can take his death as a spur to reconsider our attitudes to animals and our own participation in the needless deaths of so many of them. — Peter Singer in the Los Angeles Times

See also:

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