When Valuing Life Becomes Painfully Inconvenient

Almost 25 years ago, I was working with photographers at the tiger exhibit at Zoo Atlanta to get an image that would be featured on the front of the city-wide telephone directory (paper-weight icons of another time). School children on a field trip were there at the same time. They were in awe of the mature tiger behind the glass. I was standing off to the side, talking with a zoo employee, when we were interrupted by a young child who asked, “Can we go in there (to be with the tiger)?” The zoo employee gave the all-too-obvious answer (“No, that would not be a good idea….”), then looked at me with a wry smile and invoked Darwin, saying, “We would call that natural selection….”

Early Sunday morning, I was perusing the national and international news online and saw a headline announcing that a gorilla had been killed after a four year-old boy had wandered into the enclosure at a zoo. The headline gave no mention of the zoo’s location. As I opened the article, I thought, “Probably somewhere in the Netherlands or someplace like that.” A half second later, I learned that this was the Cincinnati Zoo, less than 20 miles from my home. As I read the details, I was angered—angered that someone would allow their child to wander into the gorilla habitat; angered that Harambe, the gorilla, had to be killed. Then I wondered how it could be that a child could even get INTO the gorilla enclosure (although it must be said that whatever barriers the zoo has had in place have worked quite well for 38 years–until last Saturday).

I compartmentalized my feelings as I read more details and learned the perspective of zoo officials who, without hesitation, made the difficult choice to put the gorilla down, lest mortal harm come to the child. As people from around the world are now coming to see the cellphone videos and argue that the gorilla was not endangering the child, it is safe to say that no one on Earth is more disheartened by the decision to kill the gorilla than the very ones who had to make that decision–the zoo officials themselves. Meanwhile, some are now indignantly voicing the opinion that the gorilla’s life was at least as important as the child’s life, if not more so given the child’s foolish decision to enter the gorilla’s environs (yes, foolish, but this was a four-year old).

In having to make a quick, life and death decision, zoo officials and emergency responders found themselves in a terrible situation. I hate it for them. I hate it for the gorilla. I hate it that human behavior resulted in authorities having to take the life of an animal that didn’t deserve such an end. That is the unseemly part of protecting human life–humans can sometimes act with such a disregard for their own lives (not to mention the lives of those obliged to protect them) that the very act of preserving human life can sometimes bring with it some rather unappealing consequences. That is the very conundrum that officials at the Cincinnati Zoo faced: that the priority of protecting and valuing human life above all other life required the life of another creature who had done nothing outside of its own nature—nothing to deserve its demise.

It is, therefore, hardly unjustified to be angered at the tragic loss of the gorilla’s life, but perhaps it says something about our society that we are more incensed by this headline than we are by the headlines that run daily across our nation announcing the needless and wanton loss of human life. Perhaps our collective indignation over the loss of Harambe is a glimpse at how the value that we place upon human life can easily become, well, far less than it should be, and far less than it must be.

We can be grateful that zoo officials made the choice to value human life above all other life. They are understandably sickened to lose the gorilla, but they have no need to second-guess their decision. We can be grateful that zoo officials did not leave matters to natural selection.