Gorilla Lives Matter | Pakistan Today

Gorilla Lives Matter

There’s no reason for human empathy to drop dead

This is not satire, and the very need to clarify so, is upsetting.

This is not intended to ridicule or belittle Black Lives Matter, a movement that I consider nothing short of vital. But the very fact that the association of animal welfare with human rights movements is comedic, even insulting, signifies the extent to which speciesism has been normalised.

A few days ago, a gorilla named Harambe was shot dead after a four-year old child fell into his enclosure, and the management determined that kid’s life was at risk. Harambe could not have been tranquilised, as the child may easily have been harmed by the beast in the time that it takes for the tranquiliser to take effect. Besides, he would likely have drowned in the moat surrounding his enclosure upon losing consciousness, and died anyway.

I am compelled to state the obvious: the gorilla’s demise was a tragedy. Anyone who believes otherwise, and is irritated by the attention this matter has received on the internet, is not my target reader. I anticipate a basic level of empathy for non-human species; and at the very least, a dispassionate rejection of the myth that suffering is ‘suffering’, only if felt by a homo sapien.

It’s understandable that in the given situation, there was no other choice but to shoot the gorilla. Well-meaning animal-lovers tend to project their own emotions and reasoning skills onto non-human organisms, and conclude that the gorilla had no intention of harming the child. It’s important to recognise that a gorilla may well consider a human child a threat to his domain, and based on the behaviour he exhibited prior to the killing, the risk was far too great to ignore.

There are two important questions to be raised. The first one is the most provocative: is it truly acceptable to exterminate a non-human merely to avoid the possibility of a human being coming to harm? If you had chicken for lunch, you are unlikely to have allowed the question to bounce around the neuronal pathways of your grey matter for more than a second and a half before answering in affirmative. Human life is indubitably more important, and whether that’s speciesism or not (it is), is a question that merits a much longer discussion.

The second question concerns the series of events leading to a situation where a human kid ended up bathing in a moat with a 400-pound ape. This question is about the imprisonment and systemic abuse of non-human organisms for our amusement, and the amusement of our children. It’s about a culture when animal flesh is consumed not to fend off death by starvation or malnutrition, but to fend off boredom. Such cruelty is unique to the human species, for even the most ferocious non-human predator wouldn’t go through the effort of trapping its prey and watching it squirm, for mere entertainment.

The idea that animal prisons, euphemistically referred to as ‘zoos’, are educational, is wholly inaccurate and deceptively self-soothing. There is nothing a zoo could teach you that a documentary featuring footage of wild animals in their natural habitat wouldn’t. Alternatively, one may choose to pick up a book about wildlife, should one wish to honour the tree that was downed for the purpose of disseminating this knowledge. It is important for us to be honest, and ask ourselves if we’re truly visiting a zoo for the purpose of educating ourselves, or because we just want to watch our evolutionary cousins perform goofy tricks inside their enclosures while we have a nice family picnic.

Zoo enclosures are designed to ensure maximum safety without severely obstructing the visitor’s view of the incarcerated animal. Quite often, the safety is sacrificed as it is the visitor’s ability to gain an unobstructed view of the animal which ensures profits. Steel nets are removed, and like in the case of Cincinnati Zoo among many others, the animals are separated from the visitors by short barriers and protective moats.

Such designs are no match against curious human children and inattentive parents. One wouldn’t want to resort to parent-shaming as a way of distracting the public from the issue of badly designed zoo enclosures (and indeed, the ethical question of operating a zoo in the first place), but there is something to be said here about poor parenting. Yes, one cannot be expected to keep an eye on one’s child every second, but if your lack of vigilance has resulted in a majestic creature being shot to death at the zoo, then yes, you ought to be embarrassed. Parenting is hard. But if your child scampers up to me in a café, kicks me in the shin, and dumps his toy truck into my Americano; I will throw shade at you and pray that you keep your offspring in check. Empathy goes both ways.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by arduous debates on whether animals cherish freedom the way we do, or whether they have the same family values as humans. We may begin by asking simpler questions like whether an animal suffers when it’s shot in the head; or has a blade slicing through its neck; or kept in cramped spaces; or chained, flogged, branded, or beaten.

The answer is yes, and we cannot wait for every human malady from poverty to terrorism to be cured before we dare allow ourselves to sympathise with non-human organisms. There is no reason for human empathy to stop dead at the species barrier.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.