It Could Have Been Me

Weeks later, I am still thinking of the recent incidents of the little boy entering the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and of the fatal alligator attack of the toddler vacationing in Florida. I am absolutely heartbroken for the parents that have lost their child. I am saddened that a rare animal was killed. And I’m appalled at the venomous online commentary toward the parents that I have read online in the wake of each incident. Comments by people who clearly have never had children (or even been around children, for that matter) or parents who are being just a little too self-righteous in their condemnation, clearly forgetting on the one hand that they should be thankful that such misfortunes have not befallen them, and on the other hand that at any time they could. Not that we shouldn’t question the parents’ judgements and decisions. We should examine them, as well as the role of the zoo/owner, not so much to cast shame, fault, or blame, but to understand what happened, learn from it and help prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

For the people who called for the family to be charged after the gorilla was killed  at the Cincinnati Zoo, I have to wonder, were you there to personally witness the mother being grossly negligent of her child? Just because he darted off does not mean she wasn’t paying attention, it means he darted off! Could she have done something more to make sure that he didn’t run off?  Perhaps. But do you hold your 3 year old’s hand every single second of the day? If you were at a zoo or some similar attraction for children, sure, you’d be holding his hand a lot but at some point, for at least a second, that child may have been unrestrained. And all it takes is a second. A second in which I am sure that had it been you, you would not have said to yourself, “oh, I better not let go of his hand because if I do, he will end up in the gorilla pit.”

I do question the zoo on why it was ever so easy for him to enter the exhibit in the first place. I don’t think zoos have to go out of their way to be idiot-proof; common sense should always prevail and people bear the responsibility to make smart decisions for themselves and their children. A quick Google search proves there is no shortage of astonishing and unfathomable reports of adults scaling zoo walls and fences into animal enclosures, more often than not with undesirable results. Those respective zoos were not to blame when those walls were high enough so that no child could have fallen over, or even an adult for that matter. But in this instance, for a child to be able to reach the gorillas that easily in mere seconds does not sound like a sufficient and adequate enclosure, and the onus is definitely on the zoo for that.

The Cincinnati Zoo did, however, make the correct call to shoot the gorilla. I am as much an animal lover as the next person and I am saddened that an innocent and rare animal was put down over this unfortunate incident. But I cannot, in good conscience, ever consider saving the life of an animal over that of a child’s, no matter whose fault it was. It did appear that the gorilla was being protective of the child, but only moments before he had also drug the child aggressively. However unintentional it may have been, the gorilla clearly was not aware of its own brute strength ability to hurt the child. With people shouting and all of the excited, escalated activity, the animal may have become nervous and reacted in any number of ways. If a tranquilizer would not have had an immediate and certain effect, then shooting to kill was the only answer.

With the Disney gator attack, as a parent, I probably wouldn’t have let my two-year old even dip a toe in water if I wasn’t right beside him, regardless of how shallow. Especially at night. And even more so with nearby signs that read “no swimming”. But I would have made those decisions based off on my own personal comfort level, and not because I would have ever thought for a moment that there was a danger of alligators on site. I read comments that family should have known alligators were a danger and that it comes with researching the place you are visiting, but I’m not sure I fully agree with that. Had I never been to Florida, I’m sure I would have researched enough to learn that alligators are prevalent there, and so therefore you probably would not have found me at the waters edge of a random pond or lake while visiting. But I’m also pretty sure I would have let my guard down by the manmade lagoon at my resort, a property managed by Disney none the less. I would have trusted that if it were dangerous, Disney would never have had it on the property to begin with. And even if they did, that there would have been a fence or some sort of barrier. And that even if no fence, that there would have been adequate signs spelling out the specific caution for alligators. Because a sign simply reading “no swimming” does not in any way communicate the same level of danger, particularly when the property has laid out sand so that it appears to be an inviting beach, enticing people toward, not away from it. Why would there have ever been a reason to suspect alligator danger at a Disney sanctioned movie night that they are hosting right on the water at a time of day when the creatures are known to be most active? None of that seems smart although I would still stop short of holding Disney  responsible for the boy’s death.

Just as I also didn’t think the Pittsburgh Zoo should have been held liable for the tragic death of Maddox Derkosh. Over two years later I am still haunted by this horrific story of a toddler savagely mauled to death after falling over the railing his mother had lifted him onto. I’m not clear on what grounds the family sued the zoo as the exhibit appeared to be adequately barricaded, it’s just that the mother disregarded the rails and lifted her child onto them. If ever there were an instance to squarely place blame on the parent, I would have to say it just may be this one. To place the child on the railing was just not a great decision, no two ways about it. But even so, I wouldn’t agree with charging the mother. I can only imagine the beating she is giving herself every single day and that she will continue give for the rest of her life. She made a horrible choice but she has already paid the ultimate price for it. What would any of us gain by bringing criminal charges against her? Instead of further punishment, I would prefer to find the take-away lesson and learn from it.

And that’s just what I did. The Maddox Derkosh incident occurred just weeks before my first visit to the zoo with my young children, so it was fresh on my mind and had me plenty nervous the entire trip. I scanned every exhibit for any potential safety issues and was shocked to see that the lions, of all exhibits, had a “fence” with rows that a small child could have easily slipped through. Thinking of Maddox, I snatched both their hands, kept them back from leaning against the fence, and probably didn’t take a breath until we were safely yards away. The same scene repeated itself at any other exhibit that raised even a hair of concern on my neck.

That was me being extra cautious, extra vigilant, doing my best to parent well and make good and sound decisions for the safety of my children. And even then you never know what can happen. Because that’s also the type of parenting I was doing the time I was carrying my newborn while assisting my 18-month old out of the car. I had her hand in mine and yet in an instant she broke free and started running around. While the parking lot was thankfully empty, it was still right next to an extremely busy street. Thinking it was all fun and games, she laughed uproariously at my panicked reaction and darted here and there every time I started in her direction. I had to make the split decision not to yell or chase her and to instead remain calm, stand completely still and speak quietly and evenly to coax her back to me. It was an agonizing and terrifying few moments.

After that incident, I immediately purchased a harness for her that she wore every single time I was out alone with the two of them until they were both older and more aware. And would you know it, I actually received adverse reactions from complete strangers over having my child “on a leash”.  I didn’t let it bother or sway me in the least, knowing these would have been the very same people who would have judged me, declared me negligent, and have had my children taken away had she succeeded in making her way onto the highway that day. Having her wear that harness in her active toddler days when I was also juggling a newborn in my arms was my answer to how I could best keep her safe in situations that had the potential to be dangerous.

It goes without saying that parents should take extra care to watch their children in places and times of potential peril. But while I go out of my way when needed to be a careful and cautious parent, I still know that even when you do everything right, anything can go wrong. It only takes a second. And for those families that have experienced that second, I choose not to lambaste, but to empathize and learn, because I realize only too well that it could have been me.


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