The story has become famous since it unfolded last Saturday: a four-year-old child fell into a Gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo near a 17-year-old male named Harambe, who dragged him through the water for a short distance and then stood over him for around ten minutes. The zoo’s dangerous animal response team, in a move that many primate experts and zookeepers are lauding, shot and killed the Gorilla after arriving on the scene. In the days since, criticism has been leveled at both the boy’s mother and the zoo by those who believe Harambe’s death was unnecessary to secure the boy’s safety. Are these critical voices correct? Probably. Was the gorilla's death inevitable anyways? Absolutely. But this is about more than a neglectful parent or poor zoo design. This is, in many ways, about how we think of nature itself.
A great many centuries ago, we worshipped nature. Think of the world’s oldest pantheons: Ancient Greeks worshipped the Sun god Helios, Egyptians prayed to the river god Sobek (complete with crocodile head), and Aztecs counted among their deities Tlaloc, the god of rain, lightning, and thunder. In antiquity, the world around us was our god, and this makes perfect sense. As civilizations further down on the tech tree encountered the vast power of nature, it would have seemed somewhat divine to them.
As civilization progressed, however, this attitude slowly disappeared. Think of the the religious tradition that dominates our world today, the monotheism of Christianity and Islam. All of these religions espouse an idea of the divine that is far more a perfect human being than it is an embodiment of nature. This change is just as understandable as our first attitudes toward the divine. After all, the relentless march of science and technology has tamed fire and lightning and water and so many other forces of nature, which helps us believe that the divine can be found not in the world outside us but within ourselves, and this is a good thing. But when we tame these forces so easily it allows us to forget just how powerful they are, to treat them as if they really are nothing more than attractions that can be safely marveled at from behind a pane of glass.
Until, suddenly, we can’t anymore. Until we’re confronted with the power of Nature, like a Gorilla that drags a boy through the water like a toy. Having forgotten the sheer strength of a Gorilla, we don’t remember that this is not what it looks like when a Gorilla wants to hurt someone, that if the Gorilla wanted to kill the boy he would have been dead in a heartbeat. Instead, we let the sheer strength of a Gorilla, a strength we haven’t been forced to reckon with, terrify us. We react out of fear. And nothing good has ever come when our species acts out of fear.
Is this to say that zoos themselves are evil, or that technology is to blame for the death of Harambe? No, of course not. Zoos, especially when they focus on the right things, can do an incredible amount to inspire awe in us for the sheer power of nature. But let’s not make a mistake here: if zoos showed us how Tigers actually hunted prey or gorillas fought pack wars, we would stay well away from the glass out of respect. It’s that respect that we’ve largely forgotten, a respect that would serve us well in place of fear in moments like the Harambe encounter, a respect we should rediscover. For our sake, and for the sake of the animals we interact with.
With excitement and optimism,