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It is tragic, but Harambe the gorilla had to die to save a child's life, no matter what lynch mob says

The shooting of US zoo's silverback has sparked an hysterical backlash. Only good thing to come out of the tragedy is the renewed debate on ethics of keeping such creatures in captivity, writes Fionola Meredith

Published 03/06/2016

Harambe the gorilla
Harambe the gorilla

Which is worth more: the life of an animal or the life of a child? I really thought this would be a no-brainer. I thought it was almost universally accepted that in any situation where the choice was between protecting a child or an animal the child would win, no question.

But the death of Harambe the gorilla, who was shot in Cincinnati Zoo after a three-year-old boy got into his enclosure, shows that the distinction is not near as clear as it should be.

An awful lot of people seem to think that the zookeepers should never have pulled the trigger, even as Harambe toyed with the child, dragging him through water, bumping his head off the concrete ground.

But what were officials confronted with this terrible situation supposed to do? Wait to see if Harambe miraculously let the little boy go entirely of his own volition? But what if the gorilla killed the boy, either deliberately or inadvertently? That was a risk that the zoo could not take, and it was right to shoot the animal to save the child's life.

Brian May, the Queen guitarist and prominent animal rights activist, posted on Twitter: "Why was this gorilla murdered ? No trial - no reason. No excuse. Who will prosecute?"

Well, Harambe wasn't murdered, Bri, because he wasn't a person. What would May have said if the gorilla had indeed mauled the child to death? There definitely would have been a prosecution and a trial then - and rightly so.

What perplexes me is why there should be so much equivocation about this most necessary slaughter. Those hysterical petitions, tens of thousands of tear-streaked signatures demanding "justice for Harambe". I wonder if the loopy people who sign such things stop to think what this might actually mean. Harambe, in case they hadn't noticed, is not coming back. So justice, in their eyes, involves punishing the child's mother - and I notice that it is the mother, not the father, who is the target of the mob's righteous ire - and holding her to financial account.

Inevitably the poor woman, identified on social media as Michelle Gregg, has been harassed, excoriated and threatened. Because the mob must find somebody to blame, and a hapless mother who foolishly let her child out of her sight for a few minutes with dreadfully unforeseen circumstances is a very easy target.

Incidentally, I don't believe that the majority of those lambasting Gregg give a stuff about poor old Harambe himself. They're just looking about for somebody to legitimately hate while feeling incredibly virtuous about themselves at the same time.

And because the mob is both stupid and vicious, other Michelle Greggs have also been attacked online, even though they have never been near Cincinnati Zoo. Presumably any Michelle Gregg will do.

If anyone is to blame it is the zoo itself for having such inadequate security that a tiny (if enterprising) toddler could make his way into the pen of a dangerous animal.

And yes of course it's horrible - almost obscene - that such a magnificent creature should have to die because of human ineptitude. Harambe was simply acting instinctively to an unexpected interloper in his territory.

One good thing to come from the row, at least, is a renewed debate about whether keeping such evolved, intelligent animals as gorillas in zoos is acceptable at all.

Years ago I remember tapping on the glass to catch the attention of a big silverback at a zoo in Spain. The look he gave me when he slowly turned around seemed wise, sad and full of terrible weariness.

In response I felt small, ashamed and strangely embarrassed. Was I reading too much into the situation, attributing human qualities to an animal? Maybe. But I haven't been back to a zoo since.

Almost as disturbing as the roar of the scalp-seeking crowd is the rise of the self-appointed expert. I am amazed that so many people consider themselves proficient on the subtleties of primate behaviour. Apparently the gorilla had no intention whatsoever of harming the boy - they could tell this simply by watching shaky footage taken on a mobile phone and posted on the internet. Farewell, David Attenborough, your day is done.

This combination of intense ignorance and extreme self-righteousness may look like the mark of the modern media age. In fact, it's as old as the medieval stocks, where despised people were pelted with rotten vegetables. But being hit in the face by a rancid tomato was a lot less harmful than the co-ordinated attacks of today's global lynch mobs.

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