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My Kid Fell Into a Zoo Exhibit, Too: Lessons We Can Learn From Gorillagate

15 years ago a Seattle mother experienced her very own zoo crisis

Published on: June 01, 2016

After a screen-free Memorial Day, Gorillagate quickly filled up my feed yesterday. I expected to hear from animal rights activists after the Cincinnati Zoo killed 400-pound gorilla Harambe to rescue a 4-year-old boy, but parents harassing a mother who lost track of her child for perhaps a minute? Questions about this crazy uproar spin in my brain while the latest news out of Cincinnati says local police are investigating the parents’ actions leading up to the incident. 

But you know what? Sometimes bad stuff happens, to borrow a line from fellow ParentMap writer Meredith BlandFact is, any one of us could have been that mom. Here to prove it is Seattle parent Kimberly Bryan-Brown. Fifteen years ago (read: before social media made it easier to cast stones) her then 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, fell into a zoo exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ).

Here’s what she had to say about the experience.

Tell me about the day your daughter fell into the WPZ exhibit.

[The day it happened] Hannah’s then 6-month-old sister, Chloe, was in the stroller and I turned for literally about two seconds to look at her. When I turned back, Hannah had flipped over the rail and landed on the inside … Fortunately, it was the African exhibit and there were no carnivorous animals but she was most definitely inside the exhibit. There were giraffes, zebras, monkeys — the monkeys were closest, just on the other side of a small canyon with a 15-foot drop.

Hannah was laid out on the ground about 3 feet from the edge of the canyon. I lunged for her and literally yanked her back up and over the railing because I could instantly see that if she stood up on her own she could easily fall down the drop.

It all happened in the blink of an eye. To this day, I do not know how I possibly could have prevented it except if I'd held Hannah’s hand the entire visit. She wasn't wild or pushing buttons or anything; she was just a little kid who leaned too far forward. 

Did the zoo have a response? 

You know what? I didn't even report it. I wonder about that now, but I know at the time I was shaken. Plus, my yelling to get Hannah's attention had woken up Chloe, so I needed to attend to her and also to calm Hannah down. Later, when I asked Hannah what happened, she just said, ‘I fell over. I didn't mean to.’ I believe she said she was leaning forward ‘so I could see.’

Did the people around you have a response?

If it was my child in that exhibit and I didn't know what was going to happen, I'd want the possibly last thing she hears to be that ‘Mommy is right here.’ I understand that reaction completely.

There weren't any other people around except my sister. Yes, my sister was there, too. So that's both of us standing there and neither one of us saw her go over at the exact moment. She was probably looking at Chloe, too. Or looking at the monkeys. I don't know. But she didn't see Hannah go over. So there was no shaming [from onlookers] because no one else was there. But both my sister and I felt totally flummoxed and flustered, and we both immediately said, ‘How in the world did that happen so fast?’

How did you feel after? I know I once lost sight of my daughter for about 10 seconds and I thought, ‘This is it. This is how it happens.' You turn away for a few seconds and everything changes!

It was one of many things through the years that heightened my awareness in places like the zoo, where you're actively looking at other things. It also made me realize that while Hannah is the oldest and the child I saw as more independent since after all, she was walking and talking and Chloe was just a baby, I still needed to be careful. 

Having said that, I know absolutely that there was no way to foresee Hannah going over the rail. I had talked to her many times about not leaning over rails whenever we were somewhere high, for example. She had no burning desire to get in the exhibit. She just wanted to see. 

Have you read much about Gorillagate? What's your reaction?

I've read several articles and watched the footage of the gorilla dragging the boy. It's horrifying because that pool is concrete and I imagine him hitting his head on it — too horrible to contemplate. I wanted to believe that the gorilla was helping him, but after reading stories from pros in the business, I believe them when they say the boy was in terrible danger.

What really jumped out at me was when someone yelled out ‘Mommy’s right here!’ Because I thought: ‘Yes, that's what I would yell out, too.’ If it was Hannah in that exhibit and I didn't know what was going to happen, I'd want the possibly last thing she hears to be that ‘Mommy is right here.’ I understand that reaction completely.  

Knowing the horrendous fear that mom must have felt, it makes me sick to read comments from all these people dragging her through the mud, talking about what a terrible parent she is. She is traumatized, for certain. She'll be hard enough on herself as it is, and she's still reeling from living a parent's worst nightmare. And then to have the world turn on her? It's terrible, terrible, terrible. 

What do you have to say to people commenting on Gorillagate?

Parenting is fraught with challenges, and we simply can't do everything perfectly. Things happen in the blink of an eye, even when you're a very good parent and you're very hands-on and very aware of your kids. They just do.  

When you have multiple kids, which I know this mom did, it is extremely difficult to take care of everyone's needs at the same level at all times, even if you're trying to.

We can't control everything, but we sure do try by ceaselessly trying to place blame. We need to tap into our compassion instead.

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