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about that gorilla

Posted on 2 June 2016

It’s tailing off now but for a good part of this week it seems like everyone (on twitter) had to declare their opinion (on twitter) over the death of a Harambe, a gorilla killed after a child fell into his enclosure at the zoo.

I’m not going to pass judgement on anyone. We all mess up sometimes, and we should strive for understanding- and be thankful our mess-ups aren’t the subject of international news. My feelings towards zoos are complicated, especially when they are involved in the work of trying to preserve and restore populations of at-risk species. I can’t imagine being put in the situation of having to decide between taking an animal down or possibly standing by and watching a four-year-old die. I eat meat, for reasons limited basically to culture and my own ability to compartmentalize what I know about the food industry and my own inertia in making that personal change.And I get why some people who don’t eat meat feel like they have a moral high ground over me, because they probably do (as do people who kill their own food).


The only thing I strongly disagree with in this whole situation is the people loudly declaring that any human life holds infinitely more value than that of a gorilla. They might be right, but I think it’s a pretty dicey proposition to think we’ve come to some great understanding of where the moral spectrum of life ends. And I think about this through the lens of human zoos:

Human zoos, also called ethnological expositions, were 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century public exhibitions of humans, usually in a so-called natural or primitive state. The displays often emphasized the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilization and non-European peoples or other Europeans with a lifestyle deemed primitive. Some of them placed indigenous africans in a continuum somewhere between the great apes and the White man.”

These things existed less than one hundred years ago. And (white/western) people were cool with them because they knew the value of some lives were greater than others. It’s easy to look back now and say “well, obviously they were wrong because they were putting their fellow humans in cages” but at the time they didn’t view them as their fellow humans. They viewed them as some related but less-important, less-aware, less-worthy-of-life-and-dignity subset of life. They could communicate, but like gorillas today, that was not enough to view them as full equals.

And I’m not saying for sure that gorillas, our dolphins, or any other animals are our equals. But I’m aware of humanity’s historic ability to look the other way when it comes to mistreating others, and how much we like to tell ourselves comforting myths about our own intelligence or place in the moral hierarchy in order to dismiss the claims that the way we are treating other forms of life is wrong. And I won’t rule out the possibility that it’s still happening today.

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