I missed most of the initial hysteria about the toddler who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. It happened on Saturday, the beginning of a holiday weekend, and for once, I wasn’t glued to social media. From what I could make out from the fringes, a gorilla was killed to protect a child.
Yep, I thought. Sounds about right. Kid lives are more important than gorilla lives.
But the story kept going, and I didn’t get it. Like, what is there to discuss? Some say the gorilla was protecting the child. But a gorilla is an unpredictable animal and can flip out and go gorilla at any moment because that's what gorillas do. The zoo couldn't gamble on a child’s life and just hope the animal stayed calm. I mean, I guess they could, but thank God someone had enough sense to protect that baby and take the gorilla out.
The story kept coming up in my Facebook feed, so I finally paid some attention to understand the outrage. Apparently, the gorilla was on the endangered species list. And yes, that is really sad. But thank God that child is safe. Because even a rare, special, unique silverbacked gorilla is not more important than a child.
And then I see that there’s a petition, “Justice for Harambe”. At the time of publication it has more than 300k signatures from people who are angry the gorilla was killed. And they want the parents of the child held accountable.
“This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child,” the petition reads. “We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence.”
On Tuesday, the Cincinnati police announced they were “investigating the actions of the child’s family in connection with the episode”, according to the New York Times.
This was the point at which I went from trying to understand to wondering, “what the entire hell is wrong with all these people?” Because this petition and investigations all this outrage over a dang gorilla is crazy. And I thought this all before I found out, via The Daily Mail, that the parents of the child were black.
On Monday, the British publication ran a story about the child’s parents, Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson. The article’s headline bafflingly describes Dickerson as having a “lengthy criminal history”, which includes no incidences of child abuse or neglect, and even the Daily Mail notes that, “in recent years, [Dickerson] seems to have turned his life around to become a proud father [of four].” Everything written about Dickerson’s background was completely irrelevant to what happened at the zoo, so I’m unclear what The Daily Mail brought it up for, other than click bait for racists (who predictably filled the comments section).
The Daily Mail’s dog whistle race bating made me wonder if—and if so, how much— the kid’s race had anything to do with all this extra concern about the poor gorilla. I wondered if there would be all this deep sadness about a dead animal if the kid who was in danger was white. Americans inherently think a white child's life is invaluable and must be saved at all costs, gorilla be damned. For a black child? Ehhhh. Some people— black folk included— need to be convinced with degrees, background checks, and marital status of the parents to determine if a black kid is worth caring about.
I brought this up on my social media pages and some of my readers told me, in short, “D, you’re doing the most” and pointed out that the Justice for Harambe petition started before The Daily Mail revealed the parents— and thus the child’s— race. But I looked at videos of the incident at the zoo, which came out along with the initial news stories, and it’s obvious the kid is of a brown hue. You might not be able to tell he’s black in the video, but you can tell he isn’t white.
And so I kept wondering, and I also began to consider if there would be so much blame placed on the parents if the kid were white. I wonder if a white mom would be called “negligent”, or would there be a million think pieces in her defense, calling this incident exactly what it is: a mistake. If the mom were white, I feel like there might be a plethora of essays from empathetic mom bloggers about "that one time I turned away for a second and my kid was gone and by the grace of God nothing happened." Because doesn’t every parent that story?
Children, are well, children. They are naive and curious and fast, which can be a dangerous combination. Every parent knows— or should know— that you can be hyper aware and uber diligent and still, all it takes is few distracted moments to lose track of your toddler. It happens to the best of parents. That this kid wandered off, and was not found before falling into the harm’s way of a gorilla is not some indication of parental neglect. It’s an error, an accident, a life happens moment that thankfully didn’t have dire consequences for a child.
The same Daily Mail article also included an update from Gregg, the mom, who reported via her Facebook page that “God protected my child”. She wrote, that her son “is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes. No broken bones or internal injuries.” Everyone praying over the death of that gorilla, should be praying harder for this toddler’s full recovery. I can’t believe this needs to be said, but apparently it does: that child’s black life matters more than an animal’s.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.