A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Are You More Important than a Gorilla?


Dear Isaiah Dickerson,

We know you didn’t mean any harm when you fell into the gorilla pen at the Cincinnati Zoo. You’re a naturally curious four-year-old, so what happened to Harambe isn’t your fault.

But you do bear a responsibility for his death. And when you’re a bit older, you’re going to have to decide how to relate to this.

I don’t know how much help your parents will be. Any mother will naturally put her child before anything and everything else. But it would at least have been gracious if your mother, Michelle Gregg, had expressed some sorrow and remorse over the fact that she and you caused the death of a beautiful, sentient, cognitively complex animal.

Instead, she brushed off all responsibility with a passing “accidents happen.” (Sort of like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “Stuff happens” after a particularly bad day of murder and mayhem in Iraq.)

And on Facebook she wrote:

God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him … Thank you to everyone that helped me and my son today, and most importantly God for being the awsome (sic) God that He is.

Awesome enough to stop Harambe from killing you until the men with the guns arrived, but not enough, apparently, to remind Mom to keep a better eye on you. Her bottom line is very clear: God is supremely concerned about you, and cares not one whit about a gorilla.


And then there’s your dad, Deonne Dickerson. Hard to tell how much life-direction you’ll be getting from him. He has a bit of a history, after all: kidnapping, burglary, gun offenses, drug trafficking charges, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Still, reports say he has turned his life around, so you never know.

I just wouldn’t count on either of them for any meaningful help on how to deal with what’s probably going to be following you around for the rest of your life.

All of which brings us to the question that’s been hovering in the background since the killing of Harambe: Was your life worth sacrificing a gorilla’s for?

On the “humans are the most valuable life form in the universe” side, columnist Dave Bry put it succinctly in The Guardian:

As much as I love animals – and I love them very much – the idea that the life of a cat or a dog or a lion or a gorilla is as important as the life of a human is a terrible one, a wrong one, an insulting one.

[There] are powerful, important things about being a human being … Yes, I would save the life of Ted Kaczynski, Idi Amin or Donald Trump over any animal you could name. (Yes, even my beloved childhood pets: the cats Love and Honey, the dog, Yvette. Sorry, guys, RIP.)

Another human exceptionalist, family-values commentator noted that on the day Harambe was shot and killed, 125,000 unborn babies were aborted. “Where’s the outrage about that?” he asked.

On the other side, the Twittersphere had a fair number of people saying that no gorilla should have to pay the price for human folly. And close to a million people have signed petitions calling for action against the zoo.

Most or the mainstream columnists preferred to stay out of the “whose life is more valuable?” question by changing it to “Why do we still have gorillas in zoos?” Certainly an important question, but it skirts the issue that’s hanging in the air: In a world of 7.3 billion thoroughly destructive humans and just 125,000 very peaceable gorillas, was your life, Isaiah, worth more than Harambe’s? We humans are anything but the valuable and important species we claim to be.

As far as gorillas are concerned, their lives, along with those of their families and their children, matter every bit as much to them as ours do to us. They are cognitively complex animals with strong family ties and deep emotions. When he was still a baby, Harambe lost his mother and his brother to a chlorine gas leak at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. (Accidents happen?)

They’re also very private animals, and they get as stressed out in zoo pens, being stared at all day by hapless humans, as you would if you were put on display like that. Most of them have to be on permanent heart medication just to cope with the stress.

As to whether Harambe would have actually killed you, it’s unlikely. Zoos are replete with stories of how gorillas have actually protected people who found their way into their enclosures. But Harambe’s life was taken regardless. (Quite frankly, a major factor in the decision to kill him was probably more to do with the prospect of a giant lawsuit if anything went wrong than it was to do with your intrinsic worth.)

All in all, while we humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation, we’re anything but. Gorillas play an important part in the natural ecosystem of the forest around them, but it’s hard, by comparison, to find anything positive that we humans contribute to the rest of the living world. We are, more than anything else, just a violent, destructive species that poisons everything we touch and makes the lives of all the other animals endlessly more difficult. So much so that by the time you grow up, Isaiah, we will probably have done away with the last of the remaining gorillas in the wild. For the few who may still be locked up in zoos, life as a museum specimen is barely worth living.

Right now, our biggest claim to fame is that we’ve set in motion a mass extinction that’s going to wipe out much of life on this planet. Ultimately it could consume our own species, too, which, from the point of view of the other animals, may be the only small blessing.

You and your generation aren’t responsible for bringing all of this about, but there’s a huge debt to be repaid. And whether you like it or not, you are now emblematic of that debt.

Whether or not you and your generation are going to be able to turn the mass extinction around (unlikely), you can certainly make a difference for any of the animals whose lives you touch.

The question, then, is: Will you continue to make their lives a misery and keep telling yourself that we humans are intrinsically superior to every other living being? Or are you going to step up and live a life that makes up for at some of what went before?

It won’t make you more important than a gorilla, Isaiah, but it will at least give your life some meaning and make up for the death you caused.