A reader with hearing difficulties, Cliff, is especially vulnerable to his children slipping away in public, so he emphasizes how crucial it can be for strangers to step in when a kid seems lost or endangered. Cliff titles his note, “Sometimes it takes a village.”
My question is why didn’t any of the other guests at the Cincinnati Zoo that day pull the kid off the enclosure walls before he fell in to the gorilla pen? Surely someone saw him before the fall? As a partially deaf parent of toddlers, I struggle daily to make sure my kids don’t inadvertently kill themselves whilst under my care, so I’m almost always grateful when a kind stranger or neighbor pitches in to help.
Case in point: My wife and I were at a park with our two daughters (ages three and one) and several adult friends and their children. We employee the “divide and conquer” strategy of child supervision, meaning we each pick a kid who we are responsible for watching at all times. This system normally works very well; late in the day, however, things went awry.
I thought I saw my wife taking both girls to play on the swings. Assuming she was now supervising both girls, I finally relaxed my constant vigilance to have a normal conversation with another adult. My wife (who had our three-year-old and the child of a friend) yelled to me to make sure I was still watching our one-year-old. She was on my deaf side so I heard nothing, but she assumed I heard her because she saw me nodding repeatedly as she was yelling at me. I was actually nodding about something my friend was saying.
I repeatedly looked over to my wife across the park. She was still swinging two girls, who I assumed both were mine, so I continued my conversation. Meanwhile, my one-year-old had gone behind us, out into the edge of the street that runs alongside the park. Luckily, one of our friends saw her, picked her up off of the curb, and brought her to me.
It was perhaps a comedy of errors that brought us perilously close to disaster, but I think this story highlights that we parents, despite our highest levels of diligence, are not perfect. Thus, it truly does take a village to raise a child. I am so grateful that our friend didn’t just ignore our obviously unattended child with a “none of my business” excuse or worry more about offending us than our child’s safety.
I wonder if anyone at the zoo that day saw the child climbing up the enclosure and could have stepped in to prevent disaster but didn’t because he/she didn’t want to interfere or offend?
Update from a reader, Frances, who nobly interfered:
That video of the man losing his daughter on the subway platform [Louis CK] was what I saw happening to someone else while I was waiting for a train a few years ago: Mom got on, child didn’t. Obviously Mom would be coming back, but I didn’t want to leave the child there alone, so I sat with him until she did. Luckily I had the time, but I think I would have done it regardless.
Thank you for all these stories of readers losing their little kids in public. Here’s mine: I was on the 22nd floor of a downtown office building with my baby in a stroller, holding the hand of my three-year-old son as we waited for the elevator. When the doors opened, the older boy slipped free and darted in. As I struggled to get the wheels of the stroller over the threshold of the elevator, the doors closed.
I am not sure why or how the elevator automatically went to the ground floor. Perhaps that was the default for the car, in case no one pressed a button. Or perhaps the kid knew to push G! We never figured that out.
The minutes I spent waiting for a second elevator and traveling down were some of the longest of my life. This was before cell phones. My three-year-old was waiting for us, in the lobby, crying, holding the hand of a uniformed janitor.
So yeah. A split second.
Dana’s story reminds me of this scene from Louie, when CK loses his daughter on a subway platform after she suddenly lunges through the closing doors:
This next reader, Anne, also has a story of a little kid getting through a door and exposing himself to danger:
I know this story isn’t about losing a child in public, but it really does take seconds for them to get into a situation. Toddlers can be amazingly curious, agile, and very quick.
I worked in child care for many years and lived for a while with friends, Russ and Cass, who had three kids. We traded partial rent for baby-sitting duties. Their two-year-old son, Rickie, was the challenge, as he was big for his age and quite the handful.
One day, while the kids were watching cartoons, Rickie suddenly decided to climb a bookcase.
I had my back turned, since I was washing our lunch dishes, but I heard a little something. I don’t know if it was a creak from the shelf or something else, but it caught my attention just in time. I turned to see Rickie almost six feet up this seven-foot-tall shelf! I ran and pulled him off in an instant. I was terrified! A minute earlier he’d been sitting quietly on the floor enjoying the cartoons.
The shelf was made of that pressboard material I find to be very heavy but somewhat flimsy. It was also a little warped, not bolted to the wall or anything, and full of big books. When I asked Rickie, he couldn’t even say what made him want to climb that thing! Of course he was oblivious to the danger he’d been in and seemed surprised at how distraught I was. We bolted down the shelf after I talked to his parents that evening.
I have another story where Rickie ends up in the middle of the road while everyone else is in bed. That one might have folks tut-tutting his dad, though. Let me know if you want to hear it.
Sure, I replied. Anne:
Russ and I worked a late shift together and Cass worked a regular day shift. She would leave in the morning and Russ would watch the kids until I got up and took over. When Cass handed off the kids, Russ would take them to the kids’ room, push one of the beds against the door, and let them play while he slept in the bed for another hour or so.
One morning, Rickie and his older sister Carrie figured out they could move the bed if they pushed it together. So these kids, who were just two and four, moved an entire bed with a 200-pound guy on it without waking him up and then got out of the room.
They had some cereal out of the box before Carrie went back to the room and Rickie decided to go play outside. This little toddler figured out the front door locks to get outside! I tell you, kids are clever and almost always on the move.
I was awoken by someone pounding frantically on the front door. It was the landlady who lived next door. She had found Rickie in the middle of the street in nothing but his diaper. Mind you, we lived on a road that fed into a freeway on-ramp and was always busy. Understandably the landlady was freaked out.
This happened over 20 years ago, but the names have been changed to protect Russ from internet outrage!
Via hello@, a reader in Queens flags a video from 1986 showing a five-year-old boy British boy at the Jersey Zoo—but this story doesn’t end with a dead body and the shaming of a distraught mother. As Tim notes, “This video is bubbling up a bit thanks to the Cincinnati incident, but mostly in the British press [the boy’s British], so Americans may not know the charming tale of Jambo the gentle silverback” (“jambo” means “hello” in Swahili):
From the YouTube caption:
Jambo shot to international news stardom overnight on August 31, 1986, when five year old Levan Merritt fell into the gorilla enclosure [at the Jersey Zoo] and lost consciousness. Jambo stood guard over the boy when he was unconscious, placing himself between the boy and other gorillas in what ethologists analyze as a protective gesture. He later stroked the unconscious boy. When the boy regained consciousness and started to cry, Jambo and the other gorillas retreated, and an ambulanceman and two keepers rescued the boy.
Tim adds, “For what it’s worth, the boy Jambo protected, Levan Merritt—now a father himself—believes the Cincinnati Zoo did the right thing given the way Harambe was behaving. (His mother disagrees.)” Here’s another reader, Brandon:
I’m not here to take a position on whether this Cincinnati mom is a bad mom or not, but as a non-parent, it’s a bit tiring to hear parents tell non-parents that they can’t judge her. Why not? Do I really need to be a parent to understand that losing a child in a potentially dangerous location is a difficult scenario that may call for added attention to the child? Or can I just use my own experiences and common sense to make a determination?
This is just a friendly reminder that there are groups of people who may not share an experience with a person but make big decisions about such persons everyday. They’re known as “juries,” which literally decide life-and-death matters everyday, and they’re the foundation of our justice system.
Another reader, Brett, broadens the topic even further:
The death of the Cincinnati gorilla seems like a tragic situation, and certainly an avoidable one. Yet, amid all the commentary, I’ve yet to see an answer to a key question: Why do we need to keep gorillas in captivity for human entertainment? What other purpose is being served? If it’s for the health and welfare of gorillas, wouldn’t that be better served by letting them live in their natural habitat? If it’s for “awareness” of some kind, does that “awareness” translate to any benefit for the gorillas (less habitat destruction, fewer threats from poachers, etc.)?
Weston today tackles that question: Do we need zoos? If you have any strong views on the matter, drop us a note. Here’s one reader, Chris Crawford, responding to Weston’s piece:
Bit by bit, we are chipping away at many of the natural habitats in which these animals live. The question then becomes: when the lowland gorillas have no place to live in the wild, where will they live? Africa is full of important animals and African nations don't have the resources to properly protect them. So they’re steadily being driven toward extinction. We have a responsibility to preserve these species, and for some of them a zoo is the only place where we can do it.
I agree that zoos are important to inspire young people with the realities of animal life. The film documentaries that we have are magnificent, but, as Weston wrote, they just don’t have the impact of seeing the real thing.
Certainly we should put an end to the barren cages. Certainly we should expand the areas available to the animals, allowing compatible animals to mix naturally. It’s expensive, but it’s still cheaper than trying to keep them alive in the wild.
“I was a perfect parent before I had a kid,” quips a reader responding to our callout for stories of losing a child in public:
There are a lot of childless, perfect parents in the world lately. Parenting is the hardest job in the world that no one can prepare you for and everyone thinks they can do it better then you.
Our story: My husband and I decided to do yard work on a gorgeous spring day, our almost-two-year-old son in tow. He was alternating between helping push the wheelbarrow and scooping up dirt.
And in a split second he was gone.
“I thought you had him,” followed by mind-boggling panic. You can’t really describe what it feels like when your world disappears in front of you. It only took a second. It was maybe two minutes before we found him just a few yards away checking out my husband’s car. But it felt like a lifetime.
Another reader can relate: “As any parent knows, it only takes a few seconds for attention to be diverted and something horrible to occur. Not minutes—SECONDS.” That’s the pattern I’m seeing among the dozens of notes coming in from readers: “split second,” “I looked away for just a moment,” “blink of an eye.” That tiny fragment of time, followed by a seemingly endless span of dread, is illustrated in the following scene from The Witch, a brilliant and unnerving film I recently watched and rewatched. (The full scene of the missing baby is so deeply disturbing—one of the most disturbing I’ve ever seen in cinema—that I cut most of it out to create this custom clip on YouTube.)
This next reader, like most of you writing in, wishes to remain anonymous:
I have a story of a lost child. It’s a story we thought of immediately in the aftermath of the Cincy Zoo incident.
We live in Cincinnati, coincidentally. We were at a Cincinnati Reds game and our four-year-old daughter wanted to go on the big, enclosed slide that goes down a full story to a garden area. My wife was at the top of the slide, and I walked down to the bottom—maybe a two-minute walk. Thinking I’d be down there already, my wife let her go down the slide and find me.
I stood at the bottom of the slide for a good three minutes, and my wife and younger daughter come down. She looks at me and asks, “Where is she?” I’m sure my eyes looked like dinner plates as I turned and sprinted through the garden to the top of the slide.
The panic was unbelievable: How in the hell am I going to find a little kid amid a 6th-inning crowd on a Sunday afternoon?! If she got scared and turned and started running in the wrong direction, I’d never find her.
Luckily, I did find her: at the the top of a slide, clutching a stranger who was comforting her.
Does this make me and my wife negligent parents? Turns out, there were two walkways through the garden. I was walking down one, and she must have gone down the other. We didn’t see each other. My wife, a borderline “helicopter parent,” was certain we couldn’t miss each other, so she let her go. Was it our faults? Absolutely. Could it have happened to anyone? Absolutely.
Losing a kid in a split second can happen to anyone, the best parents included. We are good, attentive parents, but this isn’t the only story we have. And it will happen again. As always, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Tens of thousands of online commenters should have considered that Christian adage before assailing the Cincy mother (whom Ron defended at length). This Notes thread is already becoming a sort of confessional space for parents to open up about the extremely common, though extremely judged, experience of losing a child in public. From a reader in Indiana:
Oh boy, do I have a story. Let the parents and non-parents judge me all they want, but make it anonymous so I don’t have to read the comments or fend off death threats.
I was a single mom on a vacation with my kids at a beach in Florida. My daughter was eight and my son was five. We walked down to the beach right after breakfast, where we played in the sand, poked our toes in the water, and generally romped around. I was swinging my daughter around the water’s edge and making her squeal with delight as my son waited for his turn.
But—when we fell onto the sand and I turned to him to take his hands, he was gone. In the blink of an eye.
I looked up and down the beach with my daughter’s hand clutched in mine—no sign of him. The most terrifying panic came over me when I saw that his shoes were gone. There was a pool at our hotel, right next to the beach, and I was sure he’d decided to go swimming without us. But the pool gate was locked and he wasn’t there.
By this time, maybe two minutes had passed, and in those two minutes my mind went insane thinking of horrible possibilities like kidnapping, lurking pedophiles, being sucked out to sea—anything and everything. It was the most incomprehensible, visceral fear I have ever felt.
I ran into the hotel frantically and grabbed the hotel concierge and said “I can’t find my son! I can’t find my son!” The hotel security manager came out to me as I stood on the beach, babbling the story of playing with my kids, trying (but failing) not to weep while comforting my daughter, who was screaming “What are we going to do without him? Mommy!! Mommy!!”
Another agonizing 15 minutes passed when a maintenance man at the hotel radioed the security guard and said they’d found a little boy in a blue t-shirt trying to get into a hotel room. It was my son.
They carried him to me and I picked him up and said “What on EARTH made you leave the beach? You KNOW you never leave Mommy in a public place! We almost lost you!” He told me he’d decided he didn’t want to play and promptly picked up his shoes, went into the hotel and got in the elevator, and went up to our room on the 11th floor to wait for us.
So do not underestimate the ability of a small child to do something in a split second. My story has a very happy ending, although I had flashbacks for years about those 20 minutes of hell. I know the fear that parents can feel in that first moment when they notice their kid is out of sight. But that doesn’t make them bad parents; kids are slippery little devils.
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:
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: email@example.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.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
More than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.
Is a color-blind political system possible under our Constitution? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in America today are not experiencing 1950s levels of voter suppression, efforts to keep them and other citizens from participating in elections began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.
In Shelby County’s oral argument, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get them out through the normal political processes.” Ironically enough, there is some truth to an otherwise frighteningly numb claim. American elections have an acute history of racial entitlements—only they don’t privilege black Americans.
Describing neutrino oscillations is notoriously tricky. The search for a shortcut led to unexpected places.
After breakfast one morning in August, the mathematician Terence Tao opened an email from three physicists he didn’t know. The trio explained that they’d stumbled across a simple formula that, if true, established an unexpected relationship between some of the most basic and important objects in linear algebra.
The formula “looked too good to be true,” says Tao, who is a professor at UCLA, a Fields medalist, and one of the world’s leading mathematicians. “Something this short and simple—it should have been in textbooks already,” he said. “So my first thought was, no, this can’t be true.”
Then he thought about it some more.
The physicists—Stephen Parke of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Xining Zhang of the University of Chicago, and Peter Denton of Brookhaven National Laboratory—had arrived at the mathematical identity about two months earlier while grappling with the strange behavior of particles called neutrinos.
President Trump’s pardons for three service members accused of war crimes will have lasting consequences.
None of the services seems happy with President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon two service members accused of war crimes, and reverse the demotion of a third. The Navy’s reply, however, sets some kind of record of disdain. The Twitter account of the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information Office wrote on November 15: “As the Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to restore Special Warfare Operator First Class Gallagher to the pay grade of E-7. We acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”
Those icy words breathe the mood of the admonition from Band of Brothers: “We salute the rank, not the man.”
To understand why the Navy—and the other services, too—reacted so negatively to the pardons, here’s a story I heard on a visit to Germany a couple of months ago. I had the chance to talk with a senior U.S. officer in that country.
Donald Trump’s strategy of revving up his rural base may not be worth the cost.
The shift of metro areas away from the Republican Party under President Donald Trump rumbled on in yesterday’s elections, threatening the fundamental calculation of his 2020 reelection plan.
Amid all the various local factors that shaped GOP losses—from Kentucky to Virginia, from suburban Philadelphia to Wichita, Kansas—the clearest pattern was a continuing erosion of the party’s position in the largest metropolitan areas. Across the highest-profile races, Democrats benefited from two trends favoring them in metro areas: high turnout in urban cores that have long been the party’s strongholds, and improved performance in white-collar suburban areas that previously leaned Republican.
“When Trump was elected, there was an initial rejection of him in the suburbs,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “We are now seeing a full-on realignment.”
He can’t help but go after women, even when doing so hurts his cause.
On the second day of the impeachment proceedings, President Donald Trump couldn’t control himself on Twitter: He lashed out at Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was subjected to a smear campaign, and who testified to that effect before the House Intelligence Committee. Trump’s lack of control, in itself, was not unusual. But, for some reason, Trump showed more restraint 48 hours earlier, when William Taylor and George Kent went before the Committee. It was almost as if the president found himself triggered by Yovanovitch, the 61-year-old career diplomat. But why was the president’s response so different to witnesses who were roughly saying the same thing? What was the big difference between Kent and Taylor and Yovanovitch? All three are career diplomats, all three are Ivy League graduates, all three have worked in the State Department, all three are experts in Ukraine. But only one of them is a woman. Could that be why the president singled out Yovanovitch? It is almost as if the president is unable to control his rage against women. It is almost as if the president thinks he can bully women and silence them.
As age factors more urgently in politics, a simple test could evaluate who remains fit for office.
Remember these numbers. You’ll be asked about them at the end of the test: 70, 73, 76, and 78.
These are the ages of the leading candidates in the 2020 presidential election: Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, respectively. In most any other line of work, people in their eighth decade are usually retired. For most of human history—and still in most of the world today—people of this age were usually dead.
Last month, Jimmy Carter, the 95-year-old former U.S. president, said that the office requires a person “to be very flexible with [one’s] mind,” and that by age 80 he wouldn’t have felt able to do the job. He joined the growing ranks of those suggesting they would support an upper age limit for the office, either for purposes of breaking up the gerontocracy or to ensure a person has the physical and cognitive capacity. “You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way,” Carter said.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
A record-setting acqua alta has left much of Venice submerged, following stormy conditions blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.
Yesterday, strong winds and rainstorms pushed water levels in Venice, Italy, to the second-highest levels ever recorded. The high-water mark hit 74 inches (187 centimeters), just short of the record set in 1966. This exceptional acqua alta has flooded businesses and historic structures, sank boats, and been blamed for one death so far.
The GOP will not be a great or good party until those who lead it straighten their backbone.
The first day of public hearings into the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump included an explosive revelation. William B. Taylor Jr., the senior American diplomat in Ukraine, tied Trump even more directly than we previously knew to the effort to pressure Ukraine to probe his political opponent.
But as damaging as Taylor’s testimony proved, it was merely another massive boulder in the avalanche of evidence against the president. We are well beyond the point that any disinterested person can deny that the president abused his power and acted in a corrupt manner, in ways the American founders explicitly warned against.
That the president acted the way he did should surprise exactly no one, given his disordered personality and Nietzschean ethic, his pathological lying and brutishness and bullying, and his history of personal and professional depravity. The president is a deeply damaged human being—and therefore a deeply dangerous president.