The Death of Harambe: Comedy or Tragedy?

On Memorial Day 2016, a day to remember and mourn the sacrifice of America’s war heroes, dozens of people gathered in Cincinnati to mourn and remember a gorilla. Over the Memorial Day weekend, a 3-year-old boy slipped through the barricades at the Cincinnati Zoo into the gorilla enclosure. The horrified crowd screamed as the child was consecutively schlepped and shielded by an enormous western lowland silverback gorilla. After ten minutes of horror, the ape was shot through the throat by the zoo’s emergency response team. The gorilla was dead. The boy was released from the hospital uninjured. And the Internet exploded. In the debate over American culture, the 500-pound gorilla in the room now has a name: Harambe. Though it is somewhat tragic that this beautiful and powerful animal became collateral damage in the course of an accident, the end of the story is still comic. The response to Harambe’s death, however, reveals the real tragedy resulting from decades of human devaluation in America and a failure to re-enter into the comic relation of man to nature.

In response to the killing of Harambe, there has been a barrage of vitriolic and viral statements, tweets, and memes scorching the Internet, such as “lowland gorillas are endangered and stupid people aren’t.” Comments condemning and even criminalizing the parents’ negligence and the zoo’s decision to kill before tranquilizing have been startling in their aggressive favoring of the gorilla in a situation where a human child was clearly in danger of his life. This situation and its overwhelming response from the public has gone a step further than the uproar concerning Cecil the lion and the dentist who shot him, admittedly rather ingloriously. In the latter case there was no human life in the balance. There was clearly a human life in the balance in Cincinnati, and the zoo made the absolute and obvious correct decision, difficult as it was. The child was saved, even if it was at the expense of the ape’s life—but that is only correct. It is comic, not tragic, for a comedy is a story that ends well.

The general response suggests, however, that the story ended badly. But can anyone be surprised at the outrage over one gorilla’s death when there is no outrage over the 125,000 babies murdered every day worldwide through abortion? Can there be any astonishment that people would crucify the executives of the Cincinnati Zoo for killing a gorilla but not the executives of Planned Parenthood for selling butchered children? Can there be any shock that Harambe is revered and the boy’s parents reviled when human debasement is commonplace and even celebrated through pornography? Can there be any wonder that Americans would rise up in arms over the shooting of a gorilla in Cincinnati to save a child when Americans hardly know about the shooting of a child in Cleveland by police because he seemed to pose a threat? Can there be any incredulity that a trend should arise to glorify animal life over human life when there is a growing trend for young women to pay for college by becoming “sugar babies” to deep-pocketed “sugar daddies?”

The devaluation and degradation of humanity is far advanced in America, and it brings a callousness and a madness that is arresting—or should be arresting. Strangely enough, Flannery O’Connor used a gorilla as an image of the sickness and savagery that results from human debasement and un-fulfillment in her short story, Enoch and the Gorilla. The conclusion of that story is nearly as terrifying as the tone taken in undying defense of the dead Harambe. In his excellent piece considering Cecil the lion and animal rights activism, Dale Ahlquist cites G. K. Chesterton’s apropos quote from “The Uses of Diversity:”

Wherever there is Animal Worship there is Human Sacrifice. That is, both symbolically and literally, a real truth of historical experience. Suppose a thousand black slaves were sacrificed to the black-beetle; suppose a million maidens were flung into the Nile to feed the crocodile; suppose the cat could eat men instead of mice—it could still be no more than that sacrifice of humanity that so often makes the horse more important than the groom, or the lap-dog more important even than the lap. The only right view of the animal is the comic view. Because the view is comic it is naturally affectionate. And because it is affectionate, it is never respectful.

Animal rights activists will recoil at these words, as their Justice for Harambe appeal attests, but that is only because they do not accept the principle set by the Creator that subjects animals to man, Who brought the animals to the man to see what he would call them as an affectionate master. Though man is the lord of creation, he is liable to it at the same time—which is comical, and, therefore, involves affection. One of the main problems of the misanthropic animal rights movement is that they take creation too seriously which is dangerous to mental health for it sets things off-balance. Such seriousness can make people lunatics. All things should be taken with both common sense and a sense of humor. These are the basis for sanity for they provide the relief and balance needed to avoid insanity. It keeps people level. It keeps them healthy. Only a Chestertonian hat-chase on a windy day can bestow the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is one of the humors of humanity. Again from Chesterton, in Orthodoxy:

The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

Harambe’s death is no laughing matter, but it is not a tragedy. That the ape is dead does not diminish the fact that the toddler is alive. The story is, in fact, comic, not tragic. Even though the gorilla was precious as an endangered species, there is nothing so precious as one single human life, and it should not be sacrificed, borrowing Shakespeare’s phrase, “for a wilderness of monkeys.” Man owes animals affection, but mankind is a higher object of affection as bearing the image and likeness of God. There remains, nonetheless (and despite Mr. Chesterton’s conclusion), an affectionate respect due to the creature by the warden of creation. The balance of the issue is one of necessity, and of placing all things in right relation to each other. And certainly, there is enough human sacrifice in society today indicating a terrible imbalance.

In the 1933 film King Kong, there was no hesitation to launch the Curtis Helldivers and their machine guns when the giant gorilla mounted the Empire State Building with the shrieking Ann Darrow in his clutches. The Beast must die before Beauty might die. And even though the film concludes gravely “It was Beauty killed the Beast,” the end result is still a comedy. As the Church teaches, “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly… One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” The real tragedy in the death of Harambe is the outlet it has provided to vocalize an affection that is not proper to animals and the rabid desire to find fault. The beast is dead. The boy is alive. All’s well that ends well.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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