Memories of the Cincinnati Zoo

This has been a tough week as I’ve watched many on the internet rage over the killing of a gorilla and a mother’s moment in time that will likely haunt her forever. I’ve truly shed tears over this. So much to grieve. But, guess what — most of us weren’t there. And, we just don’t really know what happened. Shared videos and the media provided a window. But, again, we were not there.

Before moving to Phoenix over ten years ago, The Cincinnati Zoo was our family’s zoo. And, it was my zoo as a child. I have many, many memories of visits there. One particular time stands out. When my son was very young, he had an abnormally high level of anxiety about being stung by bees. So, one day, it got the best of him. As we snacked, I didn’t notice the garbage can full of soda bottles and swarming bees. But, my son did. So, I became entirely focused on managing his total meltdown. Can I tell you what my 4-year-old daughter was doing during this time? Sadly, no. I can’t. I have no idea. And, dare I say it, it was certainly a window of opportunity to have lost her somewhere in the zoo that day. I am not a perfect mother, but I try to do my best. And, I believe most mothers do too.

I remember a time when I actually did lose my child. I will never forget. As I was checking out at a department store photo counter with my six month old daughter in the stroller, my toddler son decided to ignore my firm request to stay near and he began a game of hide and seek. I could not find him for — Eight. Long. Minutes. I was frantic and sure I was the worst mother on the planet! He finally reappeared peeking around an aisle end cap when a kind customer divulged his hiding spot.

Other than finding out if the boy in the moat survived his injuries, this is all I could think of when I read a personal account of the horrible sequence of events at the zoo. Like me, that mother reprimanded her son when he expressed a desire to “play in the moat.” I can only imagine how quickly the next moment unfolded, the one I’m sure she would love to take back and re-do. But, I wasn’t there. So, I don’t know. And, neither do all those weighing in on this mother’s “horrible lack of parenting.” I can only find empathy for her as I was once a mother of two curious, impulsive and sometimes willful toddlers, whose lives were almost always some kind of game.

Another zoo memory comes to me — My daughter is two and is holding my hand. She is out of the stroller and is walking for practice. She has always absolutely loved animals and considered being a veterinarian for many years. We stroll along a path at the Cincinnati Zoo, beautiful low-growing ivy lines the sidewalk. A tiny chipmunk scurries just past us and into the dense, green cluster and my daughter stoops down in an effort to catch the lively creature. She begins to cry. All she wanted to do was pet him and he is already out of sight. Why couldn’t she play with him? Why did he run away? Such is the mind and perspective of a child.

The photo I placed here is my son, Ean, at three years of age. Back in 2000, I spent a solo afternoon trip to the zoo’s “Cat House” researching the various species for the mural I was creating for his bedroom, “Cats of the World.” I was so grateful to have actual, live sand cats, lions, a serval, and many other felines all right in front of me, yet, at the same time, sad they were/are confined to this unnatural space. It doesn’t seem exactly right.

Admittedly, I am very ambivalent about the existence of zoos and I know very little about the behind-the-scenes. Yet, I know I’ve learned a lot about the animal kingdom as a result of these institutions. The Cincinnati Zoo’s staff has always been dedicated to the preservation of these beautiful and vanishing creatures. And, I do not doubt for a second the pain and grief the zookeepers have endured in the process regarding the decision to kill a most magnificent and intelligent primate. Experts who have brought their experience to the situation, have all agreed the Zoo made the right, split-second decision. Even the man who raised Harambe, the gorilla, understood the Zoo’s quick resolution. Given all the facts, I will trust their perspective. I’m sure the Zoo wishes, at this point, the barrier was much more significant and would have provided safety for everyone. Hindsight, such a good teacher. Don’t we all know it. I don’t know if this mother is remorseful. My guess is when she no longer feels defensive against the judgment (as her online writings seem to indicate), she will be able to process the entire grief and account for her part in the tragedy. It won’t change anything outwardly about this circumstance, but it may change her actions going forward, perhaps forever hyper-vigilant.

All this to say — EMPATHY. It’s a key ingredient sadly lacking time and time again in so many instances these days. So many blatant opportunities to judge — people speaking through an unsympathetic, merciless, ignorant or damaged filter. My heart truly hurts just thinking about it. We’ve just got to stop it!

This whole ordeal has jolted me into being so much more mindful of all the times I have slammed someone only to find out later I didn’t have all the information. That person was enduring a personal crisis of some kind or it simply was a case of it wasn’t what it looked like. I lacked insight. Let me say it again, I lacked insight.

Can we all just take a breath? Can we just stop the blame game? Can we all walk just even a half a block in another’s shoes? If the karmic law is truly a thing, I would never wish this kind of harrowing event on those who have stood in judgment of her — or on anyone. But, it does give me pause for reflection. Thank you for reading this far and for listening.