The love of humans for animals is a beautiful thing. That so many people care deeply about the well-being of other creatures is to our credit as a species. The efforts of those who work to preserve endangered species or to prevent cruelty to animals are laudable. But when incidents such as the tragic shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo arise we see the dark side of this impulse. While the death of Harambe the gorilla is a sad thing, the vicious backlash against the mother whose 3-year-old managed to fall into the animal’s enclosure and the zoo for its decision to kill him in order to save the child speaks to something very troubling about our society. In the aftermath of the incident, it’s fair to inquire as to whether safety provisions at the zoo were adequate or even to question the whole idea of zoos. But if it’s true that a sizeable percentage of Americans fail to understand that protecting the life of a child is a supreme value that transcends even our sympathy for beautiful or rare animals that’s a moment when we need to take stock of the collapse of basic values in our society.
The anger vented at the mother who lost track of the child whose mischief led to the death of the gorilla is as absurd as it is unfortunate. All parents understand that even the most zealous of caregivers can lose track of a small child for a moment. The mother in question is no more guilty of neglect than the countless other parents whose children get lost in stores, parks, or any other place where little bodies can slip away every day of the year. The idea of charging her with some sort of legal responsibility for the death of the gorilla — a specious assertion that has attracted the support of hundreds of thousands in an online petition — is outrageous.
The same can be said about those protesting the actions of the zoo. The safety provisions at the gorilla enclosure reportedly have been in place for decades and this was the first time any visitor had fallen or gotten into the area. When faced with the awful choice of waiting to see if this powerful beast would protect or kill the child that he was dragging around, the zoo’s leadership had no choice but to act quickly to protect the child’s life. Failure to do as they did, sad as it was, would not only have rendered them liable to legal action, it would have been immoral. And it is that point that we should contemplate as we try to make sense of the furor over this unfortunate incident.
Perhaps it is to be expected that the public outcry over the death of Harambe should be greater than any interest in the murders or accidental deaths of children all over the country every day of the year. Gorillas are rare, majestic animals and we are right to care about their survival. But, like the anger about the killing of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist on an African hunting vacation of dubious morality last year, there is something disproportionate about the willingness of so many people to expend so much energy protesting the deaths of animals while seeming to place a greater value on the lives of these creatures than their fellow humans.
What explains this?
As a species, we no longer fear wild animals or view them as competitors for living space as we did in past ages because they are so removed from our everyday existence. Instead, our culture anthropomorphizes them and often turns them into artificial symbols of humanity. But animals don’t merely engage our sympathies, their plight seems to tug on our heartstrings in a way that the lives and deaths of dreary fellow humans do not. Part of this stems from the normal affection that has always existed between humans and animals. The growing market for luxuries for pets may seem silly but it reflects the love we have for dogs and cats, animals that thrive on the company of humans. Given the love they give us, it would be inhuman for us not to be outraged when they are mistreated, as is often sadly the case.
But lurking behind the entirely normal bond between humans and domesticated animals is a growing sense that part of our culture is no longer is willing recognize the preservation of human life as a supreme value. The most egregious example of this is the writings of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer who famously spoke of a pig’s life as being equal to that of any child. Most of those venting outrage about Harambe are probably not familiar with Singer’s theories on animal liberation or “speciesism” — the notion that “human animals” have greater moral rights than nonhumans. Yet it would be a mistake to think that such ideas have not begun to influence our popular culture and the conversation about incidents such as the one in Cincinnati.
This trend ought to trouble us and not just because it is at least partially responsible for the willingness of so many to demonize a mother whose child was nearly killed and whose outrage seemed rooted in an attitude that viewed the saving of that human life as a poor exchange for the death of a gorilla. The source of this distressing trend may be traced in part to the decline of religious faith that reinforced the value of human life. But to the extent that our society ceases to view the preservation of human lives as a paramount value, we are in big trouble. If we are truly sliding toward acceptance of Singer’s utilitarian approach to humanity that not merely sanctions abortion under virtually every circumstance up until the moment of birth but also countenances euthanasia of the disabled or elderly while at the same time starting to accept his immoral equivalence of children with animals, we are on the fast track to losing our collective moral compass.
There is nothing wrong with caring for animals and loving them. Indeed, our desire to do so is a testament to all that is good about humanity. To the extent that we are so in love with animals that we feel we have to keep them captive in artificial environments so that we can see them up close — whether or not it is for their preservation — we must accept the possibility that sometimes accidents will happen. But as tragic as the death of a wonderful and rare animal may be, it is sadder still that so many humans seem more distressed by that than the deaths of children and that they have seemed to loose touch with a worldview that views human life as a transcendent value.