Gorillas, hysteria and the art of parenting

Gorillas, hysteria and the art of parenting

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When Deonne Dickerson took her son Isaiah to the zoo, she didn't plan to lose him. She didn't dream a gorilla would die. Does she and her husband deserve the fury aimed at them now?

Harambe - Courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo; Inset screen shot
Harambe - Courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo; Inset screen shot

WASHINGTON, June 1, 12016 — I’m a father. An imperfect one, but conscientious, well educated, responsible. If I’m imperfect, I still try to be a good father. I don’t always succeed.

I love my children more than my life. I would never neglect them or through inattention let them to come to harm. I would never put them at risk.

Not on purpose.

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But I’m imperfect. I can be distracted. My memory sometimes plays tricks on me, especially when I’m under stress, juggling competing demands on my time and put outside my normal routine.

“I picked up some milk and bought gas. Is there anything else you want me to do before I head home?”

A brief silence at the other end of the line, then,

“You were supposed to pick up Harlan 15 minutes ago.”

It’s embarrassing to be caught in that kind of memory lapse, but usually no harm is done. Harlan was at the soccer field, annoyed at being left there in the dark and with nothing to do for 20 minutes, but otherwise just fine.

Humans are imperfect. We all know that we make mistakes and that a lapse in attention can be catastrophic, and that knowledge is terrifying. We want to believe that good people who follow the rules won’t face the horror of a child lost in a crowd or an infant dead in a hot car. Those things happen to other people, bad people who don’t follow the rules. They happen to terrible parents who should never have had children.

They happen to monsters who don’t love their children enough to protect them.

We all experience lapses, but most of the time, they don’t end in tragedy. No one dies, no one is hurt. We laugh them off and move on, confident that we’ve avoided disaster not by luck, but because we are good and we followed the rules.

When Deonne Dickerson took her 4-year-old son Isaiah and two younger children to the zoo, she didn’t plan to lose him. She didn’t dream that he’d wander off and crawl into the gorilla enclosure. She never imagined that she’d spend 10 awful minutes waiting to see whether he would live or die.

She didn’t know that within hours, she’d be turned into a monster.

“How about blaming the f*****g numb-nut parents. Shoot them not the Gorilla,” wrote one Twitter user. “I’m pro animals. Take better care of your 3yr old F*****G KID you lazy son of a b***h. Shoot the parents first then the gorilla. Rant over,” wrote another.

Are we overdosing our children with Ritalin, aka pediatric cocaine?

I’ve lost my children in crowds. The immediate feeling was of panic mixed with nausea. But I found them almost immediately, and my panic washed away in relief.

Because no tragedy ensued, I remain in the eyes of all who know me a loving, responsible father. Had everything aligned in perfect, terrible wrongness, I’d be a monster or permanently wracked with guilt.

People don’t like to believe that terrible things can happen to them by accident or through normal human failings, so we tend to turn parents like Isaiah’s into monsters. We see the same thing when a child dies after being forgotten in a car on a summer day:

The parents deserve to be shot; they can’t possibly have loved their child; how can people like that be allowed to breed?

But we’re all fallible, we can be distracted—Isaiah’s mom was dealing with three children—and sometimes our judgment fails. Kids can disappear in a flash. We might as well wonder why someone could be struck by lightning as wonder how a mom could lose track of a 4-year-old in a zoo.

There were accidents in Cincinnati, but should that be a crime? Do Isaiah’s parents really deserve death threats? Was his life so worthless that zoo officials should have left it at risk, confident that Harambe, the 400-pound silverback gorilla meant him no harm?

“Well I’d have kept a grip on my kid. I’d never be that careless.” Yes, you would. You almost certainly have been. You were just lucky that nothing bad happened. Most of the time being human and fallible doesn’t cost a life, and being distracted doesn’t turn you into a terrible parent.

But sometimes all the wrong things go perfectly wrong, and a good person ends up with life and reputation destroyed.

Had I had to make the decision, I’d have shot Harambe. I’d have hated doing it, I might still be weeping over it now, but I’d have done it. I value the life of a gorilla, but I value the life of a human child more.

People are calling for the law to come down with all possible force on Isaiah’s parents. We want them to pay, and we want to ensure that parents will take proper care of their children by punishing those who don’t.

Yet all the punitive measures in the world won’t save even one child from a distracted parent, because none of us believes we’ll ever be that parent and none of us endangers our children on purpose. There but for the grace of God … And that, perhaps, is why we have to believe someone is responsible for every bad thing, and that we will never go there; those parents are fundamentally different from us, fundamentally monstrous.

Isaiah’s mom experienced a serious lapse, and it could have ended much worse than it did. For other parents, it will end worse. This summer, children will be run over by their parents. They’ll die strapped into their parents’ cars. They’ll drown while their parents stand by, unaware that anything is wrong.

In almost every case, the grief and shame the parents feel will be unimaginable.

The consequences of these failures will be real and tragic, but in no meaningful sense of the word will they be crimes. There’s no need for the rest of us to add our outrage to the pain and guilt of parents whose worlds have died with their children. We should wish them eventual peace, and for ourselves the wisdom and mercy to see that there, but for the grace of God, can go we all.

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Jim Picht
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.