Judging the Mom Who Let Her Boy Run Away at the Zoo

After a 4-year-old climbed into a gorilla’s pen, the internet unleashed its fury at his mother, showing a profound lack of empathy.

A boy lays flowers outside the closed Gorilla World exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (John Minchillo / AP)

I remember losing my daughter at a park. I remember losing her sister at a restaurant. I remember losing their brother at a mall. “Losing” might be too strong: I lost sight of them briefly, and for a few horrifying moments wondered whether I would see them again. How could I be so stupid?

The answer is that I am human and I accepted the most important job of my life absolutely unprepared. No parent is perfect.

Here’s proof: A mother in Cincinnati allowed her 4-year-old boy to slip her attention and wander into a gorilla exhibit Saturday. After the 400-pound lowland silverback named Harambe dragged the boy roughly through in the exhibit’s moat, Cincinnati Zoo officials shot and killed the animal.

And the world shamed the mother.

“If she watched her child he wouldn’t have been in the gorilla enclosure in the first place,” wrote a commenter on a petition calling for Hamilton County Child Protection Services to investigate the boy’s parents for negligence. Tens of thousands of people signed it.

“That child’s parents should be responsible for the financial loss of that gorilla,” Rob Young wrote on a Facebook post that received 15,000 likes.

One witness, Kim O’Connor, told the NBC affiliate WLWT-TV the mother was tending to several children when the incident took place. She heard the boy saying he wanted to jump into the gorilla compound. “The mother’s like, ‘No, you’re not. No, you’re not,” O’Connor said.

The outrage directed at this woman says a few things about American society and the state of parenthood today.

We’re too quick to judge. A parent is responsible for their actions of his or her children, but stuff happens. We don’t know what events led to Saturday’s tragedy, much less whether it’s part of a pattern of this mother’s behavior or indicative of her mothering skills.

Our judgment matters. Twenty years ago, a story like this would have been heavily covered by three broadcast networks and the wire services. There might have been some tut-tutting by those media gatekeepers, but nothing like the internet mob that rallied against this Cincinnati mom.

Where is our empathy? Show me the parent who hasn’t lost sight of a daughter or had a son bolt from their grasp and run into danger. I’ll show you a parent who’s either uninvolved in his or her children’s lives or is lying.

We expect too much. Many parents expect their kids to be perfect or at least close to it. We want them to be popular, brilliant, successful, and obedient—and so many other expectations that can’t possibly be met. Kids feel the pressure; some never recover from it. Parents also expect themselves to be perfect or at least close to it. The pressure come from within and all around: These are scary times to raise kids, so mothers and fathers often engage in a joyless struggle to give their kids the best—the best teachers, the best coaches, the best colleges, the best career opportunities, and, most of all, the best of themselves.

Parents feel the pressure. They know they’re being judged—often, harshly and by people who should know better.

“What started off as a wonderful day turned into a scary one,” wrote Michelle Gregg, a woman claiming she is the mother of the 4-year-old. “Accidents happen but I am thankful that the right people were in the right place today. Thank you to everyone that helped me and my son today and most importantly God for being the awesome God that He is.”

Every parent falls short. Hell, you could write a book about my failures as a father. (Actually, I did).