A sympathy card rests at the feet of a gorilla statue outside the Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on May 29. (John Minchillo / AP)

On Sunday, I glimpsed a headline about a gorilla that had been killed at a Cincinnati zoo when a child fell into its enclosure. On Monday, I saw a bit of media buzz around the story but thought nothing of it. The headlines of a hundred other stories struck me as more worthy of clicking on to read. But by Tuesday, the gorilla incident was officially the headline of the day, by far eclipsing the viral photo of a 1-year-old infant whose lifeless body had been pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea and the related story about 700 refugees drowning as they fled war and poverty. America is outraged—over the killing of a gorilla in a zoo. A gorilla that was, by most accounts, possibly going to kill the unfortunate little boy who fell into its enclosure. So many Americans are so upset by this incident that as of this writing, nearly half a million have signed a change.org petition entitled Justice for Harambe, addressed to Hamilton County’s child protection service, demanding “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence.” By the way, the family in question is black. Hundreds of thousands of Americans want a black family held responsible for the killing of a gorilla in what they might as well call the new “Gorilla Lives Matter” movement. These signees would like child protection services to separate the child from his parents, whom they have deemed negligent. The media are stoking the racist flames with a wholly irrelevant discussion about the child’s father’s purported criminal history. As journalist Shaun King detailed in the New York Daily News, the criminal history of parents of children mauled by zoo animals has never appeared to be an issue in the coverage of similar incidents—as is appropriate. As King eloquently summarized, “This young family could’ve lost their son. They experienced the same type of accident that white families have experienced for decades, but instead of being shown mercy or compassion, they are now enduring unthinkable attacks on their character.” Because apparently, gorilla lives matter more than the life of a black toddler. One Twitter user went so far as to post an image of a gorilla captioned, “Not sure why they killed me, I was doing a better job of watching that lady’s kid than she was,” adding, “Sums it up perfectly #JusticeForHarambe.” The sentiment is being echoed widely on social media, apparently because “experts” decided, upon watching the video of the incident, that the animal was “trying to protect the child.” While we as a society constantly dehumanize actual humans (such as black children and parents, refugees, migrants, etc.), in this case, we are intent upon humanizing an animal, insisting that we know its motives, that it had some sort of deep humanlike instinct to protect a child, even though a bystander who filmed the incident says it was “horrific” to watch the animal “drag the boy up to the top of the moat” while it “literally treats this small boy like a rag doll.” A number of people have climbed their moral high horse and resorted to calling Michelle Gregg, the child’s mother, “an idiot,” “a moron” and even “a bitch.” It is compelling to wonder whether these social media users expressed similar outrage when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police in the same state where the gorilla incident occurred. Did they demand that the Cleveland police be sued for the “senseless death” of an “innocent” boy, as they are now demanding the boy’s parents be sued for the gorilla’s death? Did they demand #JusticeforTamir like they demand #JusticeForHarambe? I am all for the humane treatment of animals. We humans live as one species among countless others, and we are the most destructive of all. We have ravaged the habitats of other animals, and we imprison a select few in zoos for our viewing pleasure. Still, not until I saw how insanely fixated the media and public seem to be by this story did I even care why or how the gorilla was killed. It was an isolated incident in a zoo, not a report about wild gorillas losing their habitats to climate change or poaching or gorillas being hunted for sport. More importantly, it was not a story about the horrors we humans perpetrate on one another—such as this report about how 45 million people around the world are trapped in conditions akin to modern-day slavery. In comparison with a hundred other news stories from around the world of social, political and human significance, the gorilla story was utterly insignificant. A kid’s life was at stake, and the gorilla was killed. That is as it should be.
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