Criminal Law

Don’t Criminally Charge “Gorilla Mom”

I get it. The 4 year old who got into the gorilla area at the Cincinnati Zoo had to climb or crawl past a railed fence, walk through some brush and drop 15 feet down into the moat where he encountered Harambe, the male silverback gorilla. It took some work and we all wondered when we first heard the story “Where was Mom?.” And this fateful encounter cost the life of Harambe who was shot to death by park employees.

The Internet has roused up anger and judgment (as usual) against the Zoo officials for shooting Harambe but mostly at the apparently inattentive mother of the child. News accounts report that the child told the Mom he planned on going into the moat and she told him not to – but you know, “Boys will be boys.” In the NY Times today, an eyewitness recounts that it all happened so fast as the Mom (who is the administrator for a day care center) was holding an infant and watching four other kids.

lady justiceThe court of public opinion is quick to judge – but police investigated the scene and Zoo officials made the decision they thought was necessary to protect the child. Yes, at first Harambe was guarding and protecting the child, but as the crowd noise grew louder, he grew more agitated and began to drag the boy by his ankle. The officials could not risk giving the gorilla a chance to calm down and Harambe had repeatedly ignored commands to leave the area; the other gorillas in the habitat responded to the commands and exited immediately. Were that my child, I would want the officials to do what they thought was necessary to protect my child. These officials are dedicated to their animals and I am sure this was what they saw as their only recourse. We should give them the benefit of the doubt.

And we should do the same for the Mom as well. How can we judge her as a parent when we simply know none of the facts? As the father of three boys, who has taken them and friends on many excursions to zoos and elsewhere, I can tell you that try as you might – things happen. One child gets distracted and darts off to somewhere in a blink of an eye. Two of them fight over a toy or a treat and a fight breaks out. The most observant parent can not prevent all harm. How many of us have shaken our heads in disgust at those parents who have their kids on a leash at the mall? Well, if charges are brought against this woman, then leashes will be practically mandatory.

Do we really want a court of law to decide how someone parented at one particular point in time? Its easy to look back and judge what happened and what could have been done to prevent the harm to this beautiful animal. But we need to be careful not to have courts and judges and juries overly analyze the parenting skills of someone in this type of situation. For bad parenting to be a crime, we require more – leaving a child in a car; signs of excessive corporal punishment; repeated acts of neglect; refusal of proper medical care. To turn what appears to be a momentary lapse of parenting into a crime would be problematic and open the doors to a flood of cases brought against parents. The death of Harambe weighs heavily on this woman’s shoulder, I don’t doubt it. And that she almost lost her child will never be forgotten by her. While the media and authorities have not released her name, everyone in her community knows who she is and is whispering behind her back and will be for a long time. Perhaps the Zoo can sue her civilly for the costs attendant to the incident, the way some rescue companies sue hikers and campers when they have to get them out of situations they put themselves into. But arresting her and charging her criminally is a step too far.

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