The tragic death over the weekend of Harambe, the endangered lowland mountain gorilla shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden after a 3-year-old boy fell into his enclosure, has touched off a roaring debate:
Is the zoo to blame for creating an inadequate enclosure, and then for needlessly killing Harambe when a tranquilizer might have been sufficient? Or is it the child’s parents’ fault for letting the boy out of their sight long enough to have made his way in?
A change.org petition calls for the Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio’s Hamilton County Child Protection Services and the Cincinnati Police Department to hold the parents responsible. Meanwhile, his mother defended herself in a Facebook post (since deleted) saying, basically, “accidents happen.”
The truth is that responsibility lies with a number of people. But the better question the incident raises may instead be: How can we prevent a similar tragedy from happening?
Some have suggested subjecting children to a sort of leash law.
“She should have [had] her child on a leash so she knew he was safe,” wrote one commenter at the Heavy. “Time to fasten your child into a stroller or a child leash,” wrote another at Hollywood Life.
Putting a harness and a leash on your toddler has long been a controversial approach: helpful, or humiliating? They are, no doubt, physically effective: Parents who use child safety harnesses can’t help but keep their child in line; they are literally tethered together. And in the case of Harambe, a leash would certainly have prevented the child from making even a fraction of the effort he needed to make to get into the enclosure (provided his parent was firmly holding onto the other end, of course, and who among us hasn’t seen a puppy running around trailing behind a leash without an owner?)
But child leashes are also enabling, and debilitating; they absolve the child from having to listen to a parent, and the parent from having to teach their kids to listen, follow rules, be safe and use common sense.
Young children are, to varying degrees, unpredictable, impulsive, thoughtless. They don’t learn to resist all of these behaviors in the name of safety for themselves and others without parents’ careful, consistent and verbal input. It is work. It’s not supposed to be easy.
A leash? That’s easy. It’s a Band-Aid, not a parenting tool. After all, what happens when dogs that can only stay put when on a leash are unleashed? They run away.
And, well, humans are not pets. Unlike dogs, children grow and evolve. They become too big for leashes, but when it’s time to untether them, they may have little more self-control with which to face the world than when they were toddlers. Leashes are ridiculous.
Some children are easier to teach to listen than others. But those children who aren’t need more work, not to be treated like pets. Parents, meanwhile, need to pay better attention. Enabled by and conditioned by technology, we live in a time when being present and alert isn’t a priority.
We are on our phones constantly (the glut of videos of the incident is small proof; did one of the people not think to put down the phone and run for help, or toward the little boy?) Whether it’s on the train, driving in our car, or watching TV, we are constantly multitasking in the name of connectivity. Which, of course, has led to the greatest disconnect we’ve ever experienced.
Leashing our responsibilities would simply give us even more freedom to be less present. Wrap a leash around your wrist, and guess what: You’ve still got two thumbs to text.
By all accounts, the Cincinnati Zoo enclosure was not unsafe. The 3-year-old who entered Harambe’s enclosure did not do so accidentally. Some onlookers reported hearing him tell his mother that he was going to go into the water.
Accessing the enclosure, meanwhile, required the child crawl through a series of barriers, through wires, and then across a moat. He was determined, and without adequate supervision — by his parents or any number of the adults in the area — he achieved his goal.
To the question of how can parents keep better track of their kids in these kinds of potentially dangerous places? The answer is, simply, parent. Do your job.
Editor’s note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.