The elephant in the room for the animal rights movement

The killing of the gorilla Harambe is sad. But in choosing between its life and that of a human child, the choice was obvious

Photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden shows Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot Saturday, May 28, 2016, to protect a 3-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. (Jeff McCurry/AP)

Photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden shows Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot Saturday, May 28, 2016, to protect a 3-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. (Jeff McCurry/AP)

Is it proper to kill an endangered gorilla to save a four-year-old boy? Of course it is. And the reasons why lay bare the philosophical flim-flammery behind so much of the burgeoning animal rights movement.

The incident last weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden seems a Sophie’s Choice of the animal world. A four-year-old boy vaulted a metre-high fence, crawled through some bushes and dropped 4.5 m into a moat surrounding the zoo’s famed gorilla display, where he came face-to-face with Harambe, a rare lowland gorilla weighing 420 lb. Harambe cornered the boy and then hauled him up a ladder by his ankle, although it wasn’t clear the animal meant any deliberate harm.

“This child was being dragged around; his head was banging on the concrete,” zoo director Thane Maynard said afterwards. A sharpshooter from the zoo’s dangerous-animal-response team killed Harambe with a single shot. “We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made,” Maynard added.

Considerable anger has been directed at the boy’s mother, who obviously failed to keep a watchful eye on her son. There have been vigils for Harambe and the usual condemnations of keeping animals in captivity. But almost no one has questioned the ethics of shooting an animal, however innocent, magnificent or endangered, to save an errant toddler. This is significant.

Related: Q&A: Our complicated relationship with zoos

Plenty of recent evidence reveals a welcome and growing social concern for animal welfare. This month, Ringling Bros. Circus retired its entire elephant troupe in response to public outcry. SeaWorld has similarly announced an end to its killer-whale breeding program. Many Canadian fast-food restaurants now plan to serve only eggs laid by cage-free chickens. Consumers, businesses and regulators now recognize a moral and legal duty to ensure animals under our care are safe from mistreatment, even if they’re bred to be consumed.

But there’s a sharp distinction to be drawn between human concern for the well-being of animals and the notion that animals have inherent rights of their own. It has become fashionable to construct legal, biological and philosophical arguments of equivalency between human and animal—that non-human animals deserve the same privileges and benefits we upright primates accord ourselves. To elevate one’s own species above other creatures is now dismissed as “speciesism.”

The recent documentary Unlocking the Cage follows the courtroom efforts of American lawyer Steven Wise, who argues apes, dolphins and other mammals are legal “persons” and thus their captivity must be considered “detention of an autonomous being.” The new book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by primate researcher Frans de Waal claims animals display morality and intelligence on par with or superior to humans. Earlier this year, two Canadian universities held a workshop discussing how best to provide animals with “political rights.” (The organizers did admit this posed certain challenges since “animals are unable to engage in most formal and informal modes of political participation, including voting, holding office, jury service, petitioning, canvassing . . . ”)

Those who claim humans are simply one of a multitude of other animals are ignoring some very large elephants in the corner. Beyond the scale and scope of humankind’s genetic success, intelligence and engagement in artistic, communal and industrial endeavours, perhaps the most significant difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we alone consider, worry about and plan for the interests of other species. Chimpanzees don’t care about the monkeys they kill and eat, animal rights critic Wesley J. Smith points out. Neither do elephants weep for the birds’ nests they crush as they forage. Only humans can transcend base instincts to make complex ethical decisions.

Accepting inherent animal rights means claiming a bizarre equivalency between running over a squirrel with your car, and hitting an elderly pedestrian. Or between shooting an endangered gorilla and letting a four-year-old boy die at his hand. But these are not equivalent options: a boy’s life is unquestionably more valuable.

That we collectively are saddened by the death of Harambe, expend effort to protect and improve the life of gorillas as well as other animals and—at the same time—recognize the necessity of killing an animal to save a little boy reveals the finite limits of the animal rights movement. Animals deserve our care and sympathy, but they are not the same as us.


The elephant in the room for the animal rights movement

  1. There was no such choice. The gorilla was used to human companionship, having been raised in a home.

    They have extensive video showing the gorilla holding the boys hand and walking with him.

    There was no reason to kill the gorilla. It was just fear, you’ve seen too many movies

    • That is silly. When the life of a child is in danger there can be no monkey business, that is the 800 pound gorilla in this room: you shoot first and agonise later. What is sad is the hysteric caterwauling of the interwebz PETA-philes that think their own mawkish mental mediocrity is a reasoned philosophical position, and ape the extreme silliness of the animal rights lobby.

      • LOL well you better hope that no future invading aliens follow the same line of reasoning as you or we’re done for!

        We are currently trying to create AI….artificial intelligence…when we haven’t studied NI…natural intelligence.

        There are many species that are intelligent….elephants, crows, dolphins, pigs, dogs,…and gorillas are only 1.6% different than you

        Having a different kind of intelligence is not the same as having no intelligence

        For example octopus are very intelligent….and…very different…….but that gives us no right to eat baby ones alive…..which humans do

        I find that barbaric…..I’m sure the octopus do as well.

        In Asia they use blow torches to cook dogs alive for gourmet meals

        Intelligence is a rare commodity in the world…we should search it out, and study it…..

        Not use it for entertainment…..or dinner.

  2. This is the kind of speciesist mindset ppl are referring to when the claim of”genetic success” and so called caring about the future of other beings. As if this is the”superior” way forward. Birds can fly! Different generations of monarch butterflies make the journey from Mexico to Canada and back again! Giant Sea turtles use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate the oceans! Humans can’t do any of these things. So tell me again why human intelligence makes us better than the rest of life on this planet?
    The fact that humans have zoos at all is a glowing example of our lack of intelligence. The fact that the gorilla was shot is proof that we didn’t have a clue about the outcome and the fact that a 4 year old was able to scale a 3 foot high fence thru neglectful parents is all proof of the stupidity of the human species.
    If we accept that we are no better than all other beings then we wouldn’t have zoos, we wouldn’t hunt and eat other animals, we wouldn’t use them but we do all these things bc we think we are superior to them.

  3. I find it hilarious how this writer so flippantly dismisses people who advocate for the closure of all zoos and marine parks by ignoring “the usual condemnations of keeping animals in captivity.” As if the frequency of such condemnations in situations such as these somehow makes the condemnations irrelevant.

    This article is plagued by nonsensical fallacies.

    Portraying the average animals rights/liberation supporter or activist as somebody who believes that animals and humans are equals is simply untrue. “Accepting inherent animal rights means claiming a bizarre equivalency between running over a squirrel with your car, and hitting an elderly pedestrian.” The writer would have one believe that there most of us believe the life of a squirrel is on par with the life of a human, that being empathetic towards the suffering of animals and being rational are mutually exclusive.

    Because animals cannot reach “humankind’s genetic success, intelligence and engagement in artistic, communal and industrial endeavours,” we should capture them from the wild, separate them from their families, ship them halfway across the world, and lock them in a cage for life so people can ogle them while they stuff their faces with ice cream?

    Zoos do not provide a public service. I am not anti-capitalist, but let us not pretend that zoos are anything but the corporate monetization of enslaved, captive animals. The frustration should not reside with neglectful parents or with the moral equivalency of killing an endangered gorilla to potentially save a toddler. If this situation makes you angry, boycott zoos and marine parks, and invest your money instead in animal reserves and rehabilitation centres around the world. They could surely use the money for than slavers at your local zoo.

    This article is as hollow of intrigue as it is indifferently verbose.

  4. When will we decide that one out of seven billion might be a more acceptable loss than one out of a much smaller number? When might we actually decide that a species might be worth more than the financial disruption of a few families? We’re wiping out species so fast that we’d better start adjusting values if we want to survive ourselves.

  5. So sad for this spectacular animal. The parents or parent of this child are apparently being investigated for this incident. They/she is solely responsible for what happened here. Irresponsible parents that shouldn’t be parents.

  6. For decades the animal rights movement has had to put up with the straw man argument that animal rights activists think humans and non-human animals are moral equivalents. Nobody is making that argument. And yet, even as this editorial points out that nobody is making that argument in this situation either, they still can’t help but pretend that animal rights depends on people believing nonhuman animals are the same as humans. It’s obvious humans have a unique capacity for reason. It’s sad that none of that is on display in this poorly reasoned editorial.

  7. I suggest an alternate perspective on your assessment that the 4 year old boy’s life is more valuable than the 17 year old male silver-back gorilla. From a supply and demand perspective there are lots of 4 year old boys (and an argument to be made that there are too many on the planet. Conversely, there are very few 17 year old male silver-back gorillas. From a cost benefit perspective we know that the gorilla had a positive benefit to society through conservation and education purposes. The 4 year old boy is too young to determine whether he will be a net cost or a net benefit to society; however, he has already cost society the life of a rare species, suggesting that if that pattern continues long term he may be a net cost to society rather than a net benefit. From this perspective the life of the 4 year old should have been sacrificed if he couldn’t be rescued without killing the gorilla. I suggest the net benefit to society (greater good) was in the life of the gorilla, not the 4 year old child. The only thing the child “has going for it” is parent who can sue the zoo.

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