Is a Child More Important Than a Gorilla?

Comments 37
RIP, Harambe. Thank you for the opportunity to ask important questions. (Image/Reuters)

By now you probably know the story: A four-year-old boy crawled through some bushes and fell 15 feet to the bottom of a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo.

A 17-year-old, 419-pound male western lowland silverback gorilla (an endangered species) named Harambe emerges from a cave to find the little boy (whose name is Isaiah).

Eyewitnesses recorded it on their phones of course because that’s what we do now, which is somehow both awesome and horrible.

The male gorilla appears to help Isaiah to his feet. In the video, you can hear people screaming and freaking out. Harmabe’s like: Ugh. STFU, humans. Then, as gorillas do with their infants, he pulls him by the leg through the gorilla enclosure. In normal gorilla terms, it’s all pretty innocuous. At the Cincinnati Zoo, with a small human child involved, it’s terrifying.

Zoo staff hurriedly evaluated the situation, and quickly determined they’d have to put Harambe down to save the child. Tranquilizing 419-pound gorillas is apparently NOT a speedy process. Attempting to would have jeopardized Isaiah’s life as Harambe could have spazzed out pretty hard after being shot with tranq darts, zoo officials said. A rifle shot ended Harambe’s life. Tragically. That’s not in question.

Then the internet did what it always does when things like this happen. It internet-screamed. It internet-screamed in Facebook comments, on Twitter, and in the comments under news articles posted all over the world.

Harambe, the gorilla, is dead despite doing nothing wrong. Many people, if not most, are wondering whether Isaiah’s parents should be held accountable for Harambe’s death.

And at this point, I’m in lockstep agreement with the planet.

OMG, I’m so glad the boy’s okay!

OMG, that’s horrible they had to shoot the gorilla!

OMG, how did a little boy seriously get INSIDE a gorilla exhibit at the zoo with no adult able to stop him?!

But then the conversation took a turn.

People were questioning whether a human child’s life was worth killing an innocent gorilla.

Some suggested that because there are 7.4 billion people and gorillas are facing extinction, that maybe the gorilla’s life is actually more valuable than the boy’s.

Others countered that humans have souls and animals do not, sparking further debate about faith and religion, as some people argued the concept of souls was a made-up fairytale, while others argued that animals do have souls that are more pure than most humans’ will ever be.

Hmm. Heavy things here.

Heavy things which beg the question: How do we rank living things?

Do People Matter Most?

No need to beat around the bush. That is THE question.

Does a little boy matter more than a gorilla?

I was married to someone who would cry when an animal died tragically in a movie (even one we weren’t attached to as part of the story), but wouldn’t bat an eye when a person died in the same story.

I thought it was weird.

But the older I got and the more people I met and the more things I read, the more I realized there were super-hardcore animal lovers who aren’t shy about telling you they’d likely rescue a dog over a person if faced with the choice.

There are people who simply like and care about animals more than they do other people.

That was a foreign concept to me for years because of my upbringing. Let’s talk about that, because our individual upbringings are totally responsible for shaping our thoughts on such things.

Growing Up Me

I was raised Catholic in a small Ohio town where most people were politically conservative.

While I was never a farmer nor a hunter, both farming and hunting were a common way of life where I’m from.

We are taught that God created all things. The Bible is typically where the philosophical buck stops. In other words—whatever the Bible says is true, and everyone else is wrong. But since the original text was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), even the Bible itself is debated intensely.

Husbands and wives don’t understand one another while speaking the same language and standing in the same room.

It’s little wonder that meaning and intent is difficult to decipher in words written thousands of years ago in ancient tongues and using ancient cultural references and communication styles.

But there’s not a ton of ambiguity in the very first chapter of Genesis—the first book of the Bible.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

And then my ancestors taught that to their kids, who taught it to their kids, who taught it to their kids, who several generations later, taught it to my grandparents, who taught my parents, who taught me.

I never even questioned it.

Here’s what me, and I assume, most people with a similar upbringing believe: God made people and they matter most because they have souls and an intrinsic value that all other life forms don’t have. You can see it in our ability to reason, and create, and love, and display kindness, and to conceive of these important concepts. We can understand the difference between right and wrong and choose accordingly.

We are called to be good stewards of the Earth, but at the end of the day, non-human animals are a lesser life form, which is why we eat beef, pork and chicken; keep pets; allow hunting; aren’t criminally charged for killing deer, raccoons, opossums, skunks, squirrels, or even dogs and cats with our cars; and aren’t considered cruel for caging or leashing animals as we would for doing so to humans.

I assumed EVERYONE, regardless of a belief in God, sort of thought and felt along those same lines, save a few outliers who are really passionate about animal stewardship and live accordingly.

Growing up, I foolishly assumed people with differing viewpoints were wrong, which is why it took me so long to achieve any semblance of maturity and wisdom.

Now, I see differing viewpoints as an opportunity to pause and reflect.

Do I believe—generally speaking—that humans are more important than animals, because a bunch of selfish and misguided humans kept telling the story over and over again, and everyone blindly believed it, so I blindly believed it, even though it might be wrong?

Did people selfishly and cruelly decide one day to dominate other life forms, and because we have the intelligence to reason and communicate as we do, we simply gave ourselves moral license to enslave animals for labor, entertainment and food?

These are fair questions everyone should ask themselves.

Humans vs. Non-Human Animals

Anthropocentrism is the belief that human beings are the central or most significant species on the planet (in the sense that they are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of all other organisms).

Biocentrism is the belief that all living things possess inherent value, and that nature doesn’t exist simply for human consumption.

As I think about those two concepts, I’d tell you that I was 100-percent in the Anthropocentrism camp in my youth, and have slowly adopted what I’d call environmental sensitivities as I’ve aged.

As a little boy, I didn’t think anything of people flicking cigarette butts out of their car windows. That’s just what people did! And back when I used to smoke, that’s where all of mine went too. But then I moved to Florida as a young adult where I discovered the Gulf Coast’s beaches to be among the more beautiful things I’d ever seen. Sometimes when I was on the beach, I’d see discarded cigarette butts and think the people who put them there were assholes.

Then, because I was still a smoker back then, I realized: Whoa. I’m an asshole, too. And then I stopped flicking them out of car windows, and made sure I found garbage cans to put them in.

There were certain areas in and around Tampa Bay where manatee would congregate in warmer waters. High-speed boaters would sometimes run over their heads and backs, causing severe injury or death to the slow-moving manatees.

After a lifetime of paying little attention to things like littering or wildlife protection, I finally felt the tug: I want to protect these things, even though it means restricting human behavior.

But, where do I draw the line?

I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point in adulthood I realized I was fundamentally against hunting for sport.

What that means is, I would feel uncomfortable killing an animal simply because I wanted to hunt for entertainment purposes. I would probably feel okay about it if I was doing it for food, but since I have supermarkets and whatnot readily available, it seems unnecessary.

Which raises another question: Are animals bred and butchered for grocery sales treated more humanely than animals which are hunted in the wild?

I don’t like to write things and not tell people what I believe and why from a moral and ethical standpoint.

I thought I would discover something about myself in the writing process here. But I haven’t.

These are big and important questions.

Am I more important than an animal because I’m mentally capable of pondering this very question?

If I AM more important than animals, does that mean people more intellectually capable than me are more important than me?

Does that mean less-educated people matter less than me?

Are animals just as valuable as humans?

Are all animals equally valuable? Why do I care about manatee more than I do about goldfish and sparrows?

Are endangered species more important than abundant animals? Where do we draw the line? Between gorillas and sewer rats?

Are our pet dogs and cats and other animals more important than the animals we commonly eat? Which animals are most important? Who gets to decide? How many people have to agree to make it true? Whose opinion ranks highest?

Are insects just as valuable as animals?

Are plants just as valuable as insects?

Is cattle and poultry farming ethically wrong?

Should I avoid killing bugs in my house?

Is eating animals morally reprehensible?

If so, is eating plants morally reprehensible?

HOW wrong is killing an animal?

What if an animal is killed by another animal? Is it okay then? If so or if not: Why?

I read people openly question whether the life of a four-year-old boy was worth killing a gorilla for.

Maybe they wouldn’t have thought that about an alligator or rattlesnake or wild boar. I don’t know.

All I know is, ever since I saw SEVERAL people openly question the value of a human child’s life, I can’t stop asking the question.

How do we rank life?

37 thoughts on “Is a Child More Important Than a Gorilla?”

  1. So this means you’re not killing the spiders in your house anymore?

      1. When I was a child, an adult family friend used masking tape to make a cross on the fly swatter so the flies could have a Christian burial…

        1. Lol! That is hilarious. I feel sorry for whoever had to remove the tape:)

    1. I justify bug killing only when they are in the house for they are invading, i never do it outside.

  2. It was a tragic circumstance where the life of the child had to be elevated over the life of the gorilla. Period. I am an animal enthusiast, and it grieves me that the gorilla had to be killed, but we simply cannot be in a place where an animal has more rights than a human. Even Jack Hannah was of the opinion that killing the gorilla was necessary because the child may not have been alive the 5-10 minutes later required for a tranquilizer to work. Spiritually, scripture says man was created in God’s image and, as you said, was given dominion over the earth. That really ends it for me.

  3. This is most thought provoking. I guess it’s easy to pose this question. ..but the way you answer would depend on your situation…
    If you were a parent with your child’s life in danger then easily your human child’s life is mire precious.
    When you step back and hear the news you are more likely to be thinking more broadly and the ‘right’ choice becomes much harder to make.
    I think this tone ultimately it was the zoo that was in the wrong as there should have never been the opportunity for this incident to occur. How was there a gap for a child to get through in the first place??
    But whose life was more important. ..? That’s a tough call to make. …

  4. What for me was disturbing was why did the zookeepers/people assume that the gorilla was going to do harm the child? I will never understand why we as humans always fear the worst.

    1. The gorilla had already drug the child by his foot though the water.

      1. It is sad that even if the gorilla meant no harm to the child, he could very easily have killed him without meaning to.

      2. “It is sad that even if the gorilla meant no harm to the child, he could very easily have killed him without meaning to.”

        So true! Hmmmmm, just like how we mean no harm to our marriages and then kill them without meaning to. (and now I ponder…)

  5. The whole thing is tragic. Sure, I hate that the gorilla lost his life life, but you gotta do what ‘ya gotta do. I would think it would be a “no brainer” if it was your child. Hopefully all zoos will do better to ensure all exhibits are safe.

    1. This is exactly how I feel too. When I heard it, I thought, tragic yes, but if that was my child, thank you very much to the zoo keepers. I feel the question needs to be asked “how did a child get into the enclosure?” The hoop jumping and regulations we needed to adhere to when we put in a pool was fierce. The gates automatically lock, the fencing is unclimbable. A child cannot get into a pool area now, if the parent happens to turn their head for a second, we can feel safe knowing that a child cannot crawl under or climb the pool fence and drown. Given how curious 4 year old children are, I would have thought that there would be NO WAY a child could climb or fall into a gorilla enclosure.

  6. I LOVE natural disaster movies….I’m a junkie for them. I remember in one….Deep Impact, I think, they had to choose only the most valuable of human life to preserve…doctors, artists, philosophers, (and all major politicians of course!), etc…. After the most valued of life was spared, then there would be a lottery for the rest. and even then, only those who were ‘younger’ than a certain age, because the elderly would be a waste of resources which would be better suited for the middle-aged and younger. That part of the movie still bothers me but I can’t necessarily say if or how I disagree with the premise.

    Interesting discussion.

  7. I am one of those people like your ex-wife who far prefers animals over the people, you might find this concept hard to believe, I find it completely normal and very easy to understand and comprehend. Babies are cute, kids are cute but grown people suck. I am also Catholic like yourself and I know what the bible says etc., but a dogs & cats versus people, I’ll take the 4 legged creatures anytime. This also extends to my love of wildlife. I have 2 kids but I just think it’s God’s way of preventing me from rescuing animals from shelters and becoming a crazy cat lady, which is exactly what I would be doing if I didn’t start a family.
    BUT preferring the company of animals over people does not mean when it comes down to it such as the incident between the gorilla and the boy you go and save the gorilla or that you regret saving the boy or that you even need to thinking about the order precedence here. Extreme animals lovers do not sacrifice the life of a human in favor of the animal, animal lovers merely, given a choice, would rather spend time with animals and they feel badly when animals are mistreated by humans.
    And the short and direct answer to the title of your essay – is unequivocally, “yes”, “always, no matter what”. We can debate the forensics later, such as faulty enclosure or parents not keeping enough of a watchful eye etc., but you always save a child or another human over a gorilla, even an endangered one, even he were the last of his kind on earth.

  8. First, Thank you for clearing up why they could not use a tranquilizer gun.
    Beyond that- I consider myself an environmentalist type of person. For the same reasons you alluded to, that we ARE supposed to be stewards of the earth. That means we need to care for it. (This also means Jet ski’s should be outlawed. A-holes do similar things to porpoises in the Texas gulf coast as the do to the manatee’s 🙁 .)
    I typically consider myself Biocentric, but in all honestly my first inclination on this if Anthropocentric.
    Mostly because the death of the child would affect more people, and effect more lives, than the death of Hamarabe would. There is more value because it would have more consequences in this case. But, I don’t think we humans have more intrinsic value that Gorillas in general. I do believe animals have souls and emotions and that in typical, normal cases I would not advocate for, and likely fight against, the death of an animal that wasn’t justified.
    Maybe its because I never met Hamarabe, or maybe if he had a family I would feel different. But, it seems like his life ends with him. While that is sad, and I am not going to say it is morally correct, that is how I am viewing it.
    I really wish the tranquilizer would have worked.
    It also brigns up questions as to was there a handler? Was there somone who had daily contact with him? I would think if that were the case less lethal interventions could have been at least attempted.

      1. Yeah, I guess when you have a child to protect (as Hamarabe may have believed) treats don’t seem that important. :(.
        The issue with the tiger happened just 2 months ago!
        My guess is there is going to be a serious review and revision about how zoo’s handle this stuff. One gets dinged for not using lethal force, the other gets dinged for using it. …Maybe they need to improve the tranquilizers….

    1. I must admit, like “hearing” you say “A-holes” Linbo. 8)

      I’m reasonably ok (though not totally) with eating animals, since I personally believe many people need it to be healthy. But like you Linbo, I think there should be a limit to how much humans just make themselves comfortable in every way that techonology and vaccines and oil and big brains allow for her on eart

      – Humanely raised animals that we eat. Ok.
      – Enclosing wild animals in Zoos for our enterainment? Not ok
      – Killing/hurting tortoises/manatees because you want to do some kind of water sport? Not ok.
      – Hunting for meat, in a sustainable and humane way? Ok
      – Hunting for fun, like fox hunting? Not ok.

      I’ll admit, I have as a goal in life to adopt a shelter dog. But then again… this dog will need to eat meat. Cows, pigs… Wouldn’t it be more respectful of life to save a cow or a pig? I have more or less concluded that the answer is yes. But I still think I’ll adopt a dog at some point. Maybe if I had a lot of space I’d adopt a pig or two.

      1. (And Linbo, just to be clear, this isn’t a criticism of you for not adopting pigs and cows instead of dogs! You’re way ahead of me in the adopting animals department in any case, I’m just sharing my thoughts. :))

        1. LOL! 🙂 My neighbors may take issue with me if I did adopt pigs or cows. 🙂
          I’ve heard mini-pigs make good pets. Too bad they don’t make mini-cows.. 🙂
          Why don’t we have animal ambulances?
          I have thought about this a lot. I hate seeing animals that were hit and left to die. That is just cruel.
          I wish we had an animal 911 service. It would operate 24 hours a day/7 days a week.

  9. I don’t want to voice an opinion, because like you…it just brings more questions to mind…which will then add to yours. But as usual your words have pushed me to that. That’s what I love about your blog.

  10. There is something uniquely cultural about how Americans feel about animals. It may have to do with being the richest nation in history. Maybe those who question why the gorilla had to be shot should wonder what the gorilla was doing in a zoo for their entertainment?

    1. WiserNow,
      While I think most zoo’s started up by collecting wild animals for entertainment ect. which can be seen as horrible and cruel, a lot of the zoos now are animal rehab areas, or they are working as a conservation measure to keep species alive. So, it started out poorly, but they have been trying to do the right thing over the last few decades.
      Maybe these incidents will raise the question of whether we really need zoo’s in our society or not.
      In some ways I would be really sad to never have seen a live elephant or giraffe. It’s not necessarily entertainment, either. It is educational and a little awe inspiring to be able to experience animals like these.
      That doesn’t make it right if there is real harm to animals by keeping them captive, and I think for me the jury is still out on if there is real harm or not.

      1. Zoos started as entertainment and profit, and in many cases I guess they still are that. However if not for zoos, many, MANY animals that are in zoos would now be extinct.

        Sadly, profit drives everything. I think of elephants that are killed for their tusks, gorillas that are killed so their hands can be used as ashtrays, or thier organs can be used in “medicine” because they are believed to increase sexual potency, and sharks that are captured, finned (for sharkfin soups and dumplings), and then dumped back in the water to die.

        The stuff we as humans do is pretty reprehensible.

        And it’s all driven by profit, or short term comfort with no thought to long term impacts.

        Same as environmental disasters like deforestation, our pursuit of oil etc.

        Taking this blog back to the normal themes of relationships and marriage, I think it’s the same freaking thinking that destroys relationships.

        People are there for what the relationship does for them, today. When the present gets uncomfortable for whatever reason, people often look for the easy button – affairs, divorce, “staying” in marriages where they have checked out because they like the comforts that marriage gives them but the won’t put in the hard work to make things better.

        We want forever, we want the happy ending, but we usually want it on our terms and aren’t willing to put in the work to get there.

  11. The one topic I haven’t seen, disappointingly, is a conversation about harnesses for children. There are some children for whom a harness can be lifesaving. Maybe special needs, maybe very poor impulse control, maybe very fearful, maybe just totally fearless – but a child who darts away unexpectedly and is so fast they can’t be caught (another Mom tried to snag this child, but he slipped away). Many totally frown on harnesses. I applaud parents who are willing to admit that their child needs help staying safe at times, especially in a public area. I would ask that people not judge a parent who has tried everything, and has come to realize that a harness is really the only way to give their child a little freedom yet keep them safe (way better than locked in a stroller all day- no freedom, and not psychologically safe for that child if endlessly crying and traumatized). If this boy had been in a harness he would not be injured, a gorilla would not be dead, zookeepers and his family would not be traumatized, and child services would not be involved.
    Please support parents of challenging children as they try their best to combine freedom and safety and not judge the caregiver of a child with a harness.

    1. I discussed harnesses with my friend just the other day. Her response was: “I have fleeting thoughts of kids harnesses; because children aren’t pets.” My mother used harnesses both on my sister and myself because we were two feisty four year olds and my brother was just a small baby. I’m glad my mother didn’t see harnesses as “leashes” She kept us safe and I thank her for that.

    2. The only time I ever used a harness was at the Grand Canyon and parents were coming up to me and offering lots of $$ to buy it from me.

  12. I’m an absolutist here. The moment we place more value on animals than we do on people, we’ve lost our values and morality completely. I can empathize with those who find it easier to love animals than people, but that doesn’t make it right. Consider the fact that people today spend more on their own pets than we do on homeless children and you’ll understand the problem. We wrote laws to protect animals from abuse before we ever wrote laws protecting women and children. It’s a serious issue and I have very little patience for those who don’t understand that humans must come first, because the implications of such thinking have far reaching consequences.

  13. I am grateful for these thought-provoking questions and relieved I haven’t been in a position to make such a decision. I wonder whether anyone at the zoo was thinking about the potential financial losses if the child had been killed or seriously injured. The gorilla’s family can’t sue the zoo. But I imagine some of those involved in the zoo’s decision loved Harambe (much more than they loved the child).

  14. I think it is tragic that the gorilla needed to die, but for me it is a no-brainer. A week later most people who were up in arms about the gorilla’s death, which was quick and not brought about with the intent to torture, will go back to their lives and not give it a second thought. However, had he died, that boy’s parents would have spent the rest of their lives coming to terms with their son dying, in a state of what must have been profound fear, at the hands of a wild animal.

    1. I’m feeling a little like Peevy McPeeverton because the video cuts off. I was hoping to share the whole thing, but- copy right laws. Sorry.
      They do have a 30 day free subscription if you really wanted to watch the rest of it.
      It had some really good stuff- like what “respect” is. IE- “a second look”.
      Looking at the person/animal/tree not for what it does for you, but for its intrinsic value.
      You can see how that feeds into the larger discussions, no?
      Really good stuff.

  15. I’ve been thinking largely along the same lines. I haven’t yet come to a defensible conclusion…

    Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, we enjoyed watching animal documentaries (early 80s, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” or something). I was young, but I remember mentally sorting the animals into “the good guys” and “the bad guys.” I think it worked out to be that “the good guys” were always the animals being documented in the current episode and “the bad guys” were the animals that happened to prey on them. It wasn’t until waaaay later when I put it together about the whole food chain that I realized that those mean ol’ foxes that ate the fluffy baby rabbits could, the next day, be the poor little foxes that get eaten by owls (or wolves or whatever).

    Humans have reason/communication, and therefore conflicts/discussions about this sort of thing. Whether or not other creatures agonize over the morality of killing and eating one another, here we are, inevitably concluding that we are big, bad specieists. But aren’t animals, as a rule, consciously or not, guilty of specieism, too?

    For the record, defensible or not, I hold human life at the top of the priority list. And I’m grateful every day that I haven’t had to make a judgment call about prioritizing the value of one human over another. (I like to think I’d rather perish together than live knowing my survival was at another human’s expense.)

    This concludes my broadcast for the evening. Thank you, and good night. 🙂

  16. There are 7.5 billion of us, and the more of us there are, the fewer of them there will be. The world’s human population has doubled in the last 40 years, while we’ve lost half of the world’s wildlife over the same period. We add a billion more humans every 12 years more or less, and the more there are, the less time it will take to add another billion. We’re breeding ourselves to extinction exponentially, but taking out every other species first. We’ll wipe them all out in the not too distant future, save for livestock, pets, insects and birds, unless we start thinking that perhaps animal lives ARE more important than human lives. I find it very disturbing when people say they’d kill one of the last breeding pair of an endangered species to save a single human. ONE human being is more important than an entire species… That scares me, and doesn’t give me much hope for the future of the planet. In Kenya, there are wildlife reserves with trained snipers protecting the critically endangered rhinos in their care from poachers, or anyone presumed to be poachers or any other threat. They shoot first, and ask questions later. The rhinos lives are considered more important than human lives, and I believe that’s how gorillas should be protected as well – which means they need to be somewhere other than in zoos. In the grand scheme of things, I do think a critically endangered animal’s life is more important than the life of a human being.

    Having said that, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t shoot a tiger to save a 3 year old human. There’s a life or death situation in which the tiger WILL kill the child, and I wouldn’t hold a 3-year old responsible for getting itself into that position. Logic tells me that the tiger is more important, but my natural human protectiveness toward children would kick in. Different story with a gorilla. They aren’t predators or carnivores, and they aren’t as human-like as chimpanzees, which have been known to display very human-like shocking violence. Gorillas are herbivorous “gentle giants”, so I’d be inclined to try something other than lethal force, as I honestly don’t think a gorilla would kill a 3 year old human. Especially after 10 minutes. If Harambe wanted to harm the boy who made a death defying leap into his moat, he could have and would have long before anyone showed up with guns. I’d go with the tranquilizer. I know there’s some risk involved, but I believe a very slight one, so in my mind I wouldn’t be thinking in terms of “which life is more important”, as in one or the other. I believe that a gorilla’s life is at least important enough to not kill it as a first resort in order to “save” a child who might not need saving at all. People will say, “but what if it was YOUR child?”. Well, if I came home to find my house on fire, and my neighbour’s house beside it on fire, and I was told that my dog was trapped inside my house, while one of the neighbour’s family members was trapped inside theirs, I guess I’d be one of those awful humans who would rush into my house to try saving my dog. It’s not that I think animal lives are worth more than human lives – it’s that my own family and loved ones are more important to me than someone else’s. I would immediately go into panic mode thinking of nothing but getting my dog out, and everything else would be secondary. So if it was MY child, I’d think differently than if it was a stranger. I’m not an absolutist; I think it depends on the circumstances. But in principle, a critically endangered animal’s life is paramount.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: