Suburban Snapshots

Any One of Us Could Be the Cincinnati Zoo Mom

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Update: here's a first-hand account of the incident.

There was a group of us at the zoo one afternoon a few summers ago—Anna, at least 3 of her cousins, plus something like 5 adults. We said our goodbyes when a couple of friends opted to go drink away the loud, crowded park, and as I pulled out of a quick hug, Anna was gone from her seat in our wagon. She wasn't anywhere among the tanned, summer legs of our group, wasn't watching the ferris wheel a few feet away, she wasn't even up the path eyeballing the cotton candy vendor. My eyes darted in every direction, unsure which way my body should move. After an eternal few minutes or so, we found her standing at a hunting game, flanked by bigger kids shooting water at decoys. At home, drinks were had.

When I was little we lived in a high-rise on a military island off the tip of Manhattan. My mom wasn't feeling well one afternoon and had sent me alone down the elevator to the building's courtyard playground, where she kept an eye on me from the window of our apartment. On my ride back up, I exited at the wrong floor and wandered into a stranger's unit. She helped me find my way to the place I actually lived. I swear I have a memory of first seeing her stove and realizing it wasn't the same color as the one in our kitchen. In the story I am 3 or 4 and my mom aged 5 years.

There's a legend in my husband's family as well, though some of the smaller details are contested depending on who's doing the telling. During a vacation to the Jersey Shore ("down the Shore," he corrects me), Steve, his 3 siblings, a few cousins, both parents and some combination of aunts and uncles walked from their hotel to the beach, except that Steve decided he wanted to watch television instead, so he peeled off from the group and headed back to their room. In this story he's either 4 or 6, but the ensuing chaos remains pretty consistent. Eventually they found him and decided to let him live.

Just last week a friend of mine posted the story of her own slippery toddler, when, at a park, she had turned to comfort her tantruming middle child and in the midst of this fully-engaged, hardcore parenting, her 2-year-old wandered clear across the grass and sat himself in the middle of a baseball game. He was not awarded the MVP.

Anna didn't slip into the alligator pen, Steve wasn't snatched by a pedophile or riptide, I was safely returned to my mother, and my friend's toddler wasn't beaned with a foul ball. None of that happened because of probability and plain, dumb luck.

It seems though, that people forget these kinds of stories when they end in tragedy, and especially when they happen to strangers. A gorilla in Cincinnati had to be killed yesterday when a 4-year-old slipped from his parents and wandered into the animal's enclosure. Tranquilizers were not an option. The internet lashed out hard and fast at the boy's parents, going on just enough detail to condemn them, and a willful forgetting of any personal experience that would remind them how easily kids evade even the most attentive guardians, how you don't instinctively know which direction to move when your child has suddenly vanished from your side. Many drew a hard line, feeling for the gorilla only, as though compassion were that one-dimensional. Others touted their decades of flawless parenting, having themselves never experienced the cold panic of losing sight of a child—or maybe they've just forgotten, like we do with labor. Once in a restaurant a couple stopped to let me know that their children had never behaved the way mine was in public at that moment; I believe they were experiencing the same kind of selective parental memory.

I don't know the particular psychology behind what happens on internet comment threads, or the personal psychology that causes me to continue to read them, but my guess is that we soothe ourselves, trying to believe that we'd have avoided the tragic scenario because we're simply better parents. Our kids are safer, we're more attentive/smarter/vigilant than the parents we've just read about. We smugly type away, satisfied in our righteousness, then switch off. We hurl condemnation at people we know nothing about beyond 300 or so words, staunch in our sanctimony, ignoring completely what kind of horror it must have been to see their child in that kind of peril, refusing to feel it ourselves. We trade empathy for torches and pitchforks because those tools are easier to carry.

The loss of Harambe is tragic and heartbreaking, it's prompted new debates over the purpose of captivity. The gorilla was killed to save the life of a curious little boy who'd wandered away from his parents during a trip to the zoo, the way children wander away from their parents at amusement parks and beaches and playgrounds. If you have a child, you know this to be true; if you were a child, you've done it. But in our outrage over the loss of that majestic, endangered animal, we have to be careful to hold onto our humanity.

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