By now, most of us have heard the tragic story of Harambe the gorilla.

In case you missed it, the gist of what happened is this: A toddler fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo. Harambe, a 400-pound gorilla, saw the boy sitting in the water and stared at him for a bit. A few times, Harambe pulled the boy through the water quickly, moving the boy to a different location. A full video shows the encounter. Forced to decide quickly, zoo officials killed Harambe with one shot to the head and later said that a tranquilizer dart would have agitated the gorilla and would have taken too long to kick in, putting the boy’s life at risk.

Beyond being sad for everyone involved and wondering how much a new gorilla would cost the zoo ($100,000 to $200,000 it turns out), I had mostly put this story from my mind.

But as is usually the case when animals get killed, mob mentality went wild. People saw themselves in the event and felt invited to share a conclusive opinion on who is to blame. The media took the ongoing interest and ran with it.

And this is where the story gets interesting for me again — not the event itself, but the reaction to the event and the questions that people are asking and not asking about it.

Consider the analysis of the mob. The dominant themes on social media seem to revolve around the following:

  1. An excoriation of the mother of the child as negligent, complete with threats against her life

  2. Defense of the mother and all parents in general. (To that end, Washington Post’s Amy Joyce has a good take: “Remember that time you were a perfect parent every minute.”)

  3. A debate over whether the gorilla was attacking the child, protecting the child, playing with the child, or something else.

The fact that the mob’s blaming questions and conclusions all focus on the immediate actors — the boy, the mom, the gorilla — reveals a lack of critical thinking. The mob is often narrow-minded and can’t see past the end of its collective snout.

There are smarter, bigger, more illuminating questions to ponder. Questions that evolve us even farther from the apes.

Personally, I’ve always liked the follow the money approach to analyzing any situation.

I present the following questions without judgment, and without any real conclusions myself, for the sake of a more rational, intelligent societal discussion:

  1. What is the risk / reward profile of operating a zoo, and is it worth it?

  2. The Cincinnati zoo brought in $40 million in revenue last year, 16% of which, or $6.5 million, came from taxpayer subsidies. Is the zoo something that the taxpayers believe enhances the city? Are taxpayers happy with the subsidy? Are they paying the right amount?

  3. Did you know that zoos have dangerous animal response teams tasked with keeping the public safe? Can we accept that if we are going to cage animals and charge people money to look at them, there is inherent risk to that? Are the risks worth it?

  4. Can we accept and understand that all activity carries risks and that the only way to eliminate risk is to eliminate the activity, and even then, you might introduce a new set of risks? Accepting that, how does the discussion evolve?

  5. The Cincinnati zoo has $17 million worth of notes payable and bonds payable. Does the tragedy put that debt at risk? What assets secure that debt?

  6. What tradeoffs were made between having a clear line of sight to the animals and having an enclosure that could be fallen into, in the first place? Was that tradeoff worth it? Would a giant piece of plexiglass, or metal bars have been better, or would such a design ruin the public’s viewing pleasure?

  7. How much would it cost to have a double moat enclosure, or a better design that would prevent anyone from falling directly into the gorilla area? Is the cost worth it?

  8. What’s the elasticity of demand on admissions pricing? Would you pay an extra $2 for your zoo ticket to have a space where it isn’t physically possible for kids to fall into enclosures? Would you pay an extra $10?

  9. A tragedy happened and cannot be reversed. Now what? What other questions should zoo officials ask themselves? Taxpayers? Zoo goers?

Ask more questions and poke holes in the conclusions of the mob — that’s my take.

Edited to add:

A lawyer friend shares that my post reminds her of a legal formula used to calculate negligence. The formula is as follows:

If (Burden < Cost of Injury × Probability of occurrence), then the accused will not have met the standard of care required.
If (Burden >= Cost of injury × Probability of occurrence), then the accused may have met the standard of care.

Wikipedia link to the concept of the calculus of negligence.
Wikipedia link to the judicial philosopher, Billings Learned Hand, (what a name!), who came up with the standard.


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