Judging the Mom Who Let Her Boy Run Away at the Zoo, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you haven’t yet heard about the story of the four-year-old kid at the Cincinnati zoo who climbed into the pen of a gorilla that was subsequently shot dead, Ron covered it yesterday. He defended the mother against the hordes of online commenters blaming her for the child slipping away in a split second. (An edited version of events is embedded above, and the original smartphone footage is here in full.) One reader’s reaction to the story:

There’s a post going around Facebook from a woman on the scene who indicated that parents simply lost their kid in one of those “blink of an eye” moments. Most parents will tell you that yes, small children are curious and impulsive and can act stupidly in an unbelievably short span of time. In the meantime, the rush to judge the parents has led to:

  • Death threats against the parents
  • Avoiding the question of why the zoo didn’t have better protection against a stray kid falling in
  • Valuing a gorilla over a child
  • Monday-morning quarterbacking the decision to shoot the gorilla. (Show me your gorilla-expert credentials before you judge the zoo.)

Here’s a quick rule: If your reaction to a gorilla’s death causes you to lash out at a set of parents and call for their deaths and/or criminal prosecution (speaking as a lawyer, I can’t imagine what charge you’d bring against the parents, much less how it would possibly stick), consider whether you’re acting more like a rational human or an angry gorilla.

But this next reader, Olivia, doesn’t think the scrutiny is entirely unwarranted:

I am not a parent, but I have a gnawing question about this incident that I cannot shake. In 38 years (the zoo opened in 1978), not one person has ever fallen into the enclosure. In that 38 years, I have to assume there were thousands of toddlers and curious four-year-olds. Why did none of them make it over the barrier? Is this four-year-old boy deeply rare in his abilities? This is the main reason I feel there may be justification for the scrutiny of the parents.

A few core points from Ron’s piece:

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.

On that note, have you ever been in a situation similar to the Cincinnati mom’s, losing your kid in a public place and narrowly averting disaster? Let us know if you’d like to share: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader with a quick story:

When my son was around three, we went to a bookstore at the mall. I had to let go of his hand briefly to bend down to pick up a heavy book from a bottom shelf. He ran from me so fast. I raced through the store, my heart pounding, tears welling in my eyes, when a member of the staff up on a ladder called out where he was running. He had gone back to see some stuffed animals at the front of the store.

I’m a good mother, but a child can get away from you in less than a second. What happened in Cincinnati was an accident. Instead of turning our fury toward this family, we should be looking for ways to protect animals in the wild, so we don’t have to see the last of them in a zoo.

Another reader also opens up:

I think most parents, if they’re honest, have a story like this. While I’ve never “lost” either of my kids in the store, a miscalculation nearly cost my oldest her life.

I was heavily pregnant when I took my then two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to the local park. It was surrounded by a fence and had a gate at one end leading out to a very quiet residential street. Usually, I would have followed my daughter around to make sure she didn’t get into anything, but it was humid, I felt horrid, and decided to sit down on a bench and watch her play.

She got it in her head that she was going to make a run for the gate. Why I don’t know, but she did and the latch on the gate wasn’t fully secured. I immediately saw what she was doing and tried to run after her, but I simply couldn’t move quickly enough (I didn’t anticipate that either) and she ran toward the middle of the road. A car was coming down the road, and I only managed to get her to stop by screaming as loud as I could. It startled her; she stopped, the car stopped. I was hysterical.

So, yeah, I never lost a kid, but I almost lost a kid.