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Sometimes Bad Stuff Happens: Quit the Blame Game in Gorillagate

When a boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo and Harambe had to be killed, the backseat parenting began

Meredith Bland

Published on: May 31, 2016

As you’ve no doubt heard, over the weekend a 4-year-old climbed over a barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo and landed in the gorilla enclosure. The gorilla started dragging the child around, hitting his head on the concrete and against the walls of the enclosure. In order to save the life of this child, zoo employees unfortunately had to shoot and kill the gorilla.

Social media has, of course, responded by providing helpful words of advice for the mother of the child and for the zoo. For example, they let the mother know that this was her fault because she was negligent, and that she is a bad mother. They also let the zoo know that their exhibit was not safe enough and they, too, are at fault.

Oh, internet. I can always count on you to call someone a c---t.

The internet wants to blame someone, so who do we blame in this situation? Option one is the Cincinnati Zoo. The zoo, whose exhibit barriers have been adequate for almost 40 years, is being blamed because this child climbed over the fence and across a ledge that dropped him 15 feet into a moat. As the zoo director has said, any motivated person can get past almost any barrier. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect our zoos to be less penetrable than the White House.

No matter how many child leashes we buy, covers for sharp corners we install on our furniture, and rubber mats we roll out at playgrounds, kids are going to do stupid things when we aren’t looking. Because they are kids. It has happened to every parent. If you can say that your child has never had an accident of any kind, then either you are a liar or your child lives in a bubble made of clouds and blankets.

We can’t keep our children safe every second of every day. That’s scary, but that’s also the truth.

The minute one kid is under control, the other one is chasing the cat with a hammer.

Which leads us to the second and more popular choice for blame: the mother. Which is equally as stupid.

First of all, that woman was there with more than one child. There is no way to keep all of your attention on all of your children at the same time. The minute one kid is under control, the other one is chasing the cat with a hammer. And while you’re teaching that second child about having empathy for all creatures, the first one has started licking your neighbor’s car. Unless they are strapped together and you are superhuman, you cannot watch all of your children constantly. It’s impossible. Stop pretending it’s not.

Second, part of the reason this woman is receiving so much blame is because we love to blame mothers for all of their children’s mistakes.

Let’s be crystal clear about this. If this had happened to a dad who was at the zoo alone with his three kids, there would have been two kinds of reactions: One would have been, “Oh, that poor guy. He was being such a good dad by taking all of his kids to the zoo all by himself. I’m sure he was doing the best he could.”

The other reaction would be, “Well, what do you expect? Dads never pay attention to their kids the way moms do.”

Either way, he would not be receiving the same backlash this mother is. We still hold mothers to impossible standards. We mothers are told not to be “helicopter moms,” hovering over our kids every second of the day. But we’re also not supposed to be “free-range moms,” giving our kids too much freedom.

All that is expected of us is that we give our children the perfect amount of supervision so that they are never in danger. It’s just that simple, and just that impossible.

What all of these people who are calling for the mom to be charged with negligence are doing is pretending that this kind of awful thing could never happen to them or their kids. They are better parents. Their children are safer.

The fact is, scary as it may be, none of that is true.

Let’s take a minute to think about what kind of precedent we’d be setting if this woman was charged with a crime, and what our world would look like if parents were held criminally responsible for accidents like this. If my dog bit your child, and I have to have him put down, I could sue you for not paying attention to your child. If your child ran out in front of my car and I hit him or her, I could demand that you pay for my car repairs because you weren’t paying attention to your child. If your 2-year-old touched my boob, I could sue you for sexual harassment because you weren’t in control of your child.

Is that where we want to go?

It’s horrible that this magnificent gorilla had to be killed. It’s horrible that this child had such a terrifying experience. Something really awful happened because we are human beings and we cannot control everything. Zoos can’t make it impossible for people to get into enclosures. Parents can’t keep kids from doing life-threatening things. That’s life. I understand that we are in a country that loves to punish women for their choices, but I resent the idea that accidents can’t happen without someone being made to pay for it. Let’s find a little empathy, or at least admit that we don’t have all the answers.

Sometimes, bad stuff just happens.

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