Cincinnati police officials raised the stakes in the debate when they announced with great fanfare that the parents could face charges presumably for child negligence or endangerment. This is yet another near textbook case in which race, sometimes sneakily, sometimes nakedly, crops into a flashpoint issue.
Trying to second-guess the motives of those who line up on both sides is a close run up. Topping the checklist of good parenting is the fierce vigilance and protection a child’s well-being and safety at all times. The paramount concern of every child welfare agency on the planet is to insure that children stay out of harm’s way. The penalty for violating that responsibility is severe: the removal of a child from an unsafe home, whatever the parent or child’s color.
In part what fanned the gorilla killing to a fever pitch and prompted the merciless finger pointing at Michelle Gregg, the boy’s mother, for negligence, was the almost surreal circumstance: a toddler falling into the enclosure of a potentially dangerous zoo attraction in full and shocking view of dozens, including the mother.
A video captured the horror in graphic and terrifying details of the child being bandied about by the gorilla, and of course, the gunning down of the gorilla.This was a drama that even Hollywood on its best or worse days would have trouble concocting.
The other part is, of course, race. The fact that the parents are black fed into the ancient stereotype that black parents are chronic shirkers, lax, uncaring and plain lousy parents. Case after case has been cited of some incident where a white kid was in danger, including one involving a kid in a gorilla enclosure at an Illinois zoo in 1996. Yet there were no mass calls for the parents to be drawn and quartered or the kid snatched away from them.
There was certainly no petition circulated that thousands eagerly rushed to sign demanding that the parents be brought up on charges by family services in the 1996 case. There was no rush by Fox News and other news outlets to dig up and blare every piece of dirt some about the father’s past run ins with the law. The fact that the father wasn’t even at the zoo was by inference more damning proof of parental negligence. White parents in similar tragedies were not hounded on their job, and called every vile name under the sun in countless rants on Facebook and tweets.
Yet, it’s the emotionalism over the issue that makes it impossible to just wave off the contention that something went badly awry in that fateful moment when a child could easily have been injured or even killed in the grip of a massive animal. One can rail at Cincinnati Zoo officials all day for not constructing a breach-proof barrier around the gorilla enclosure to insure the safety of the animal and the patrons, and they wouldn’t be off base. But even without the seeming lapse in security, the reality remains that millions of people visit zoos every year and yet it’s the rarest of rare occasions when anyone tumbles into an animal enclosure.
There are lessons to be learned by all in this tragedy: How best to insure the safety of animals, the safety of patrons, the responsibility of parents for their child’s safety, and what a child protective agency should or shouldn’t do in this situation, and the neverending cautionary note about the danger of dragging race into a tragedy.
There are no winners here. A prized endangered animal is dead, a child was in and then escaped harm’s way, two parents are on the public hot seat for supposed negligence, and zoo officials must do a soul search about what, if anything, they could or should have done better to prevent the tragedy.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is How “President” Trump will Govern (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.