The death of a silverback gorilla quickly led to a national referendum on a mother's parenting, a police investigation into her family and an angry mob sending her death threats on social media.
The mother, outed by social media vigilantes, nearly lost her 3-year-old child after a moment of distraction. Since then, she has become the target of those who say she should have been shot instead of the endangered ape.
The Cincinnati police said on Tuesday that they are investigating the family of the preschooler who slipped through a three-foot rail and fell into the moat of the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday. Harambe, the lowland gorilla, approached the child, eventually dragging him through the water. Zoo officials say the child's head banged against the concrete, and they fatally shot the gorilla to save the child's life.
The human gut reaction after hearing this news should be grief and anger at the untimely and unnecessary loss of a majestic creature -- one held captive by humans. It was my instinctive response, as well. I tweeted on Sunday: "It takes considerable effort to scale a zoo's gorilla enclosure. Requires a lot of parental negligence for that to happen."
But I had rushed to this judgment before I had seen the actual barrier or knew much about the parent's behavior in that moment of the child's escape. I'd fallen into that easy trap of casting blame and judging a person in a flash of anger.
Later, I saw a photo of the barrier in question and realized that it wouldn't have taken much for a determined, impulsive preschooler to dash through the moat in the amount of time it would take a parent to turn around and attend to another child in her care.
This is when human higher-order thinking should kick in. It's rational after a tragedy to question if it could have been prevented. It makes sense to question whether a three-foot rail and four-foot hedge was enough of a barrier between humans and 450-pound beasts at a zoo, which has a responsibility to adequately protect both visitors and animals.
And it is that uniquely human ability to self-reflect that allows us to remember a moment when we may have been that parent who looked away for a second while a quick-footed child darted away. We've all likely seen children run across a parking lot dangerously, or through a store, while their parents appear distracted.
Even animals can exhibit empathy.
Those quick to criticize zoo officials and experts for killing the gorilla might pause to consider how they would want those officials to respond if it had been their child or grandchild or nephew who accidentally fell into that enclosure.
"But that would never be my child!" the rationalizing human brain responds. "A 'good' parent like me would never take her eyes and hands off a slippery 3-year-old at a zoo," it says, in that self-soothing, illusion-of-control way. The ability to judge the mistakes of another allows a person a sense of superiority, which can feel like a protective shield against freak accidents like this.
Taking refuge in a social media mob provides more than just an outlet for outrage; there's safety for the accusers in that mob. Together, its members share the sense that their superior judgment and actions would never allow such a tragedy to occur. And in an age where we are confronted daily with how little is in our control, social media offers an anxious subconscious a way to calm itself through blame: The more we blame this other person, the less likely it seems such horrible accidents could befall us.
A petition created on Change.org demands that the child's parents be "held accountable," and more than 350,000 people have signed it so far. A logical follow-up is to ask what accountability looks like in a situation like this. What sort of punishment fits the crime, if one has been committed, in such a case?
For those who blithely said "shoot the mother instead" -- even the gorilla, in its confused and startled state, showed more restraint.
Now, who is behaving like animals?