God and Gorillas
Dave Bry writing for The Guardian this week stepped into the controversy arising from the death of a 17 year old Silverback Gorilla (Harambe) with an article entitled, “I can’t believe I have to say it, a human life is worth more than a gorilla’s.”
The reason for all the hue and cry is that Harambe the gorilla’s life was terminated by the staff at the Cincinnati Zoo following an incident with a four year old boy. Apparently the child had scaled a fence, traversed through some bushes and then fallen into the enclosure. With the 180kg gorilla pulling the child by the leg around the cage and becoming increasingly agitated the director of the Zoo Thane Maynard said, “The risk was down to the power of the animal, his strength.” After a terrifying 10 minutes the keepers took the very difficult decision to end the gorilla’s life with a single rifle shot.
The outcry on social media has been intense as an article on vox.com outlines, “The mother, for her part, said in a now-deleted Facebook post that she made a mistake by taking her eyes off her child. But this has not stopped people’s fury, much of which has focused on the mom’s claim that “accidents happen” — which many people have interpreted as a disregard for how much danger she put her child in. So they have called for the government to investigate her and potentially tear apart her family, and even harassed people who have nothing to do with the event besides sharing a name.”
And thus an internet lynch mob was born. Despite the widespread protestations Joanna Walters reports Zoo Director Maynard’s reflection that if faced with the same situation again they would make the decision and opined that those who thought otherwise were simply, “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
So much for the background, what of Dave Bry’s article that human life is worth more than the animals? He expresses his discomfort in this way, “As much as I love animals – and I love them very much – the idea that the life of a cat or a dog or a lion or a gorilla is as important as the life of a human is a terrible one, a wrong one, an insulting one.”
Bry gives a few reasons why this is the case:
a) “Even if you don’t like the other humans in the club, we are trapped here, in our human clubhouse, by the strands of our shared DNA and our equal capacities for perception, emotion and communication.” Bry observes that humans are distinct from animals genetically.
b) “No other species on this planet could even take part in this discussion.” I understand his point here to be that humans are sentient animals with unique rationalising, ethical frameworks, and conceptualising skills no other animal posesses.
c) “They don’t have the same access to our state of being, the empathy, the sympathy, the language, the particular and unique sort of love that we share with each other.” In other words, there’s something about the nature of humanity that is distinct from that of other living creatures.
I think that Bry’s observations are largely self evident but the tide of social media and commentary on this story is quite extraordinary and should be instructive on where our society is up to when it comes to adjudicating worth and order. Consider this comment from poster in the comments section below – “Aleks Piszczynski” who claims no expertise at all but offers a pretty good summary of the sentiment I read,
“This article offends me. To think that the life of that stupid kid is worth more than the gorrilla's life just on the basis that he is human is the biggest load of bull. I would rather a thousand humans died than one more animal of a critically endangered species. Humans may be smarter than animals but that does not make them any more valuable or worthy of life than any other animal on this planet. This kind of human superiority way of thinking is the sort of narcissistic crap that has ruined the planet up till this point and we really need those who think this way to get over themselves.”
In the face of Bry’s claims for genetic difference, sentience, and unique language, empathy, sympathy and love “Aleks” says humans are no, “more valuable or worthy of life than any other animal on this planet.”
Where do we turn? How should we evaluate such claims?
The Bible has lots to say on humanity and animals in its first chapter. We note the animals precede humans in the Genesis account and yet it is only humans who have this magnificent statement made of their arrival,
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”” (Genesis 1:26-28 NIV11)
What do we learn here?
1) Humans alone bear the image of God
God’s likeness is only bestowed on humans and is not therefore reflected in animals. This makes humans uniquely God’s image bearers and invested with a dignity (and indeed worth) that transcends that of other living creatures.
2) Humans are given rule over the animals
The command to rule suggests subordination – animals and humans aren’t equal if the job of being soverign over them is given solely to humans.
There’s one more passage that will help us when it comes to our relating to the animal world and it’s found in the very next chapter – forgive me for quoting it at length but the logic unfolds over several paragraphs.
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.”(Genesis 2:15-22 NIV11)
We see two additional points emerge here:
3) Humans are to work and care for the garden (and its inhabitants)
The job given to Adam is not to pollute and destroy but protect and care for, and be productive with, the precious contents of the garden God has entrusted to him. Humans are to care for animals as part of the wider care for the creation and the rule mentioned above is exercised through the naming of each creature.
4) Humans aren’t equal with animals (no suitable helper was found)
Despite our love for canines as a ‘man’s best friend’ there was no suitable helper found for Adam amongst the entire animal kingdom paraded before Adam. It took another human being (Eve) – a woman – to be truly an equitable companion with Adam. Again we see explicitly that there’s a distinction between people and the rest of creation.
So humans and animals are different according to God. Humans alone are made in God’s image. Humans are entrusted with rule over living creatures. Humans are given the task of care and productive use of the natural world and humans alone are equitable companions.
How does this impact our boy and the gorilla?
Firstly, we should be caring for our world and the fact that a Silverback is in a zoo to start with tells us something about the fallen state of our world – Harambe’s natural habitat is being destroyed and his species endangered. In this sense the first part of the story is about human failure to care for and protect the animals. What the angry online commenters get right is this; Harambe is valuable. His species matters and there is nothing to celebrate in his death. What they get wrong is how they view the boy involved, which leads us to our next point.
Secondly, when we find a human endangered by an animal we should naturally preference the safety of the person (in this case a child). We do so not because killing animals provides any joy, or that animals are worthless, but rather that in a terrible choice between an image bearer in danger and a creature there is only one choice to make. It’s the human person every time.
I’m saddened that Harambe needed to be killed. I’m disappointed that it was possible that a child could find their way into the cage. I’m distressed to think how the mother and the keepers felt seeing the child in danger and the choice that they faced as the gorilla’s carers. In the end I think they made the only (though tremendously difficult) choice they could.
I hope that this young man, having had his life spared, grows up with a heartfelt desire to care for God’s creatures and becomes a passionate advocate for an endangered Silverback population. Thankfulness, after all, is profoundly human.
Feature photo: Photo taken by Kabir Bakie, Wikipedia