Parents Perspective

Let’s Give the Mom in the Gorilla Incident a Break, Shall We?

Ugh—the Internet is awash in criticism of the mother of the boy who fell into a gorilla’s enclosure over the weekend. But we moms know just how hard it is to keep our kids in our grasp 24/7. 

Harambe Gorilla From Cincinnati Zoo Cincinnati Zoo
You have probably heard by now what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday afternoon.

A three year-old boy ran away from his mom, slipped past the gorilla enclosure’s barriers, and fell into the area’s moat. For 10 tense minutes, a teenage male silverback gorilla alternately stood over and then dragged the boy through the moat’s water. Finally, zoo personnel shot and killed the gorilla and rescued the boy.

It was a terrible situation. A young boy and his family were traumatized. A gorilla was dead. But, thankfully the boy wasn’t seriously injured, and we’ve all learned a little about the (in)security of some zoo enclosures. Wiser, we can move on to the next fascinating story in our newsfeeds, like what celebrity baby shower was totally OTT.


Ha! What’s happening now is totally predictable: It’s open season on the mom.

Of course it is! Didn’t you know that it’s always the mom’s fault? Not the dad’s. (Where was he anyway?) Not the zoo’s for featuring an insecure enclosure. Nope; the mom’s. Why wasn’t she paying more attention? Why didn’t she have an iron grip on her son’s arm? Why didn’t she have her eyes on him every single second?

Naturally, the mother has been pilloried on Facebook and Twitter. A petition alleging parental negligence and responsibility for the sad situation has over 350,000 signatures. It reads, in part:

We believe that this negligence may be reflective of the child's home situation. … Please sign this petition to encourage the Cincinnati Zoo, Hamilton County Child Protection Services, and Cincinnati Police Department hold the parents responsible.

This kind of condescending accusation makes my blood boil. Really? Responsible for what? For not keeping an iron grip on their son throughout their outing to the zoo? Only non-parents wouldn’t understand just how easy it is for a small child to dart away. It can happen in an instant. I remember walking hand in hand through the mall with my daughter when she was three years old. I let go for a moment to fish something out of my purse, and before I knew it she was climbing into a fountain 10 feet away. Kids—that’s what they do!

Also, no reasonable parent would expect that an exhibit at the zoo—the ultimate family-friendly destination—could be so accessible. It’s not like we’re talking about train tracks, busy streets, or strip mines for Pete’s sake.

But, since the Internet is playing the blame game, why isn’t the kid’s dad sharing in some of the ire? The boy’s mom was reportedly supervising four children, including a baby in her arms. Why wasn’t dad around to lend a hand? You can bet if the child had slipped from his dad’s grasp, commenters would be saying, “Well, where was his mother?”

Since judgey-ness is our national pastime, people also aren’t letting the zoo off the hook. There is a vocal contingent outraged, outraged that an endangered gorilla was killed. Truthfully, it breaks my heart that the gorilla was shot, but the zoo explained that shooting it with a tranquilizer dart might have agitated the gorilla further, and the sedative would have taken a few minutes to kick in, to boot. God knows what might have happened to the boy in those minutes.

As Thayne Maynard, the director of the zoo said, "The child was being dragged around. His head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing. The child was at risk.”

If my kid had been in that enclosure, locked into a 420-pound gorilla’s grip, you can bet I would have begged the zookeeper to fire away. And I would wager that if it were your child you would have done the same.  

We moms know the truth. Kids are unpredictable, clever, and able to slip into spots we never would have imagined. It’s time to stop blaming the boy’s mom in this scenario and stop second-guessing the zoo’s quick action. Let’s just be thankful for this horrible situation’s silver lining: Miraculously the boy seems to be okay, at least physically. He was released from the hospital on Saturday.

Jenna Helwig is the food editor at Parents and the mother of a 10 year-old daughter.