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In our opinion: A life and death decision at the zoo

FILE - This June 20, 2015 file photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden shows Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot Saturday, May 28, 2016, to protect a 3-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. When the 400-pound gor
FILE - This June 20, 2015 file photo provided by the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden shows Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot Saturday, May 28, 2016, to protect a 3-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. When the 400-pound gorilla grabbed the 3-year-old boy, the sharpshooter who killed the ape wasn't police but a specially trained zoo staffer on one of the many dangerous-animal emergency squads at animal parks around the country. (Jeff McCurry/Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden via The Cincinatti Enquirer via AP, File)
Jeff McCurry, AP

Many continue to criticize the decision to kill Harambe, a 450-pound Western lowland gorilla, at the Cincinnati Zoo after a toddler fell into his enclosure. Dr. Emily Bethell, a senior lecturer in primate behavior at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., told the Mirror that Harambe “was clearly being protective toward the boy” and there were “no signs of the gorilla being aggressive.”

Footage of the incident is online, which has led to a public outcry. One commenter on the zoo’s Facebook page lamented that “(o)nce again, an innocent animal pays the ultimate price for human stupidity.” Actress Kaley Cuoco agreed, calling the incident “senseless” and evidence of “people not using their brains.”

While the best outcome would have been for the gorilla as well as the child to have survived this episode without injury, there wasn't a path that would ensure that outcome. Forced to make a reasoned judgment, despite the strong emotions they knew this decision would elicit, the zoo personnel took action. The zoo was following protocols put in place in the case of just such an eventuality. As unfair or unkind as it may seem, there were simply too many scenarios where Harambe could have harmed the child, even inadvertently. Ed Hansen, CEO of the American Association of Zoo Keepers, told NBC news that “the only really positive way to ensure the safety of the child was to dispatch the lethal force.”

That’s not to say that this is a decision that ought to be celebrated, but rather that it was the best of several bad options. There are also investigations proceeding into whether the parents of the child were negligent and whether the zoo had appropriate precautions in place. Certainly there are a number of appropriate questions to ask. Every safeguard should be put in place to ensure that this is never something that happens again.

The ensuing discussion after this incident is also instructive, as it reveals many of the assumptions we have about the intrinsic value of a human life. Deliberate cruelty to animals is deplorable, and we each have an individual responsibility to treat all life, human or otherwise, with decency and respect. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that it would be completely inappropriate to do nothing and allow a 450-pound gorilla to maul a helpless human child.

"We stand by our decision," said Thane Maynard, the director of the Cincinnati Zoo. "We'd make the same decision today.” While we hope that circumstances never arise that would require a similar decision in the future, we stand with Maynard and agree that, in this instance, he made the right call.