Zoo tragedy made worse by mob ‘justice’ of online comments


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It would be nice if someone just unplugged the internet for a while.

A mostly unintentional trip over the big wire that connects everyone across intellectual and cultural divides might provide the perfect opportunity for everyone to pause. People could breathe, think before pounding away at the keyboard and maybe even have open and honest discussions.

Instead, everyone online becomes an armchair expert content only with turning a trickle of anonymous venom into an ocean of shaming.

Enter Michelle Gregg, who before last weekend was just a mom trying her best to make it through a life that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. That changed when her 4-year-old son managed to get into the enclosure of a western lowland gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

The boy made it through shrubs, over a fence and then plunged 15 feet. Harambe grabbed the boy, dragging him across concrete. Zoo officials made the decision to kill the gorilla out of fear of what it would do to the child. Using a tranquilizer, they said in affirming the decision several days later, could have easily enraged the gorilla and caused the child’s death.

The second-guessing started online immediately.

First came those who believed they could see inside the mind of the animal. “He was protecting that child,” several challenged. These are, of course, not first-hand observations but the conclusion of people watching a snippet of some of the videos making the social media.

The official report of the incident, for the record, indicates firefighters observed the 450-pound Harambe “violently dragging and throwing the child.”

The gorilla was reacting as one would expect a wild creature to behave. People seem to think animals in zoos are somehow stripped of their natural instincts, but workers know better. Keepers at several zoos have reported having fingers bitten off by animals. In March 2004, a lowland gorilla escaped its enclosure at a Dallas zoo and attacked several people before being shot and killed. In August 1996, a 3-year-old boy climbed a railing and fell into the primate exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, although workers were able to save the child without harm to the gorilla.

Next up in the blame game were zoo officials, criticized for making the life-or-death decision to fatally shoot the gorilla. Days after the shooting, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden director Thane Maynard said “the gorilla was clearly agitated. The gorilla was clearly disoriented.”

Then the boy himself was the target of anger. Seriously, a 4-year-old was subjected to such catch-phrases as “keep brats out of habitats.”

Finally, the digital vitriol seems to have settled on the mother. She has been harassed and threatened because she was not more “remorseful” over the gorilla’s death, petitions have been posted — one with more than 300,000 signatures — calling for her to be investigated for neglect. It has bashed her for her appearance and even her race. Some mental giants have even targeted the wrong Michelle Gregg online, and others have bluntly said zoo officials should have left the gorilla alone — that if the boy had died it was his own fault.

Is this what we have become? Is this what passes for legitimate discourse?

How the boy was able to steal away from his mother is a sensible question for authorities to investigate. But to take to social media to castigate, cajole and even threaten those involved is reprehensible.

It’s not just this situation, though. Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, people are overly willing to remove the filters of taste, decency and civility and spout sewage that’s leaking into our lives more and more.

What happened in Cincinnati is tragic. What happened online in the aftermath is heart-breaking. Where it’s leading us in the future is frightening.

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