I don’t know how the three-year-old boy fell into the moat at the Cincinnati Zoo. Nor do I know why Harambe, the 17-year-old silverback gorilla, was in the zoo in the first place. As a critically endangered primate, the zoo may have seemed his safest refuge, although it didn’t turn out that way. A security official shot and killed Harambe in late May as he sat with the child.
His death elicited enormous response, some of it in the form of elegies for him, but much of it irate, anonymous and mean-spirited attacks on the boy’s mother, made by people fortunate enough not to have had their child fall into a gorilla cage. There was something extraordinarily touching about the way Harambe reached out to the boy, with a gentleness that belied his brooding face and 440-pound body. But this was not a Disney movie in which a modern-day Mowgli is raised in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Harambe spent his entire life in captivity; his sole purpose – from our perspective, if not from his – was to entertain paying tourists. His death was a tragedy, and so was his life. Perhaps some good will come of it, if we re-examine life in captivity and seek to understand what the world looks like from inside a cage. He is the hero of this story.
So much of the continuing human response, however, echoes the meanness that has taken over our public discourse – personal attacks, heedless of facts, seeking only to demean.