A 3-year-old’s terrifying experience at the Cincinnati Zoo when he climbed over a barrier and fell into a gorilla exhibit has laid bare our collective passions for and against animals.
Some see the zoo incident, which resulted in a 17-year-old endangered Silverback gorilla being fatally shot, as the latest high-profile example of an age-old disconnect between humans and animals. And they worry that people, especially naive youngsters, still may not be comprehending the dangers of interacting with wildlife.
Few, if anyone, can know the motivation of the small boy who ignored zoo barriers in trying to get closer to the 400-pound gorilla.
The human bond with animals is timeless. But in recent decades the exploding popularity of animated movies and TV shows featuring lovable, talking and emoting creatures have fed that bond, according to Eric Jenkins, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati.
It’s the anthropomorphizing of animals — projecting on to them human sensibilities — said Jenkins. Some call it the “Disney-fication” of wild creatures, referring to the popular movie-maker and its creation since the mid-20th century of hundreds of beloved animal characters.
Jenkins knows more than most about Disney. He recently wrote a book – “Special Affects: Cinema, Animation and the Translation of Consumer Culture” — on the media company.
Popular entertainment media — not limited to Disney — has “a way that plays with that divide between animals and humans,” Jenkins said.
“There are a lot of movies that anthropomorphize animals and that was a trend even back in the 1940s,” he said.
Modern-day examples abound of wrongly expecting non-animal behavior from animals.
Countless YouTube and other social media videos feature overly-confident humans being injured — even fatally wounded — by animals they assumed were eager to be approached.
And despite the Cincinnati boy’s potentially deadly encounter with the gorilla being witnessed via video by millions, humans aren’t likely to change, said Miami University Professor of Psychology Allen McConnell.
“We are quick to extend human-like qualities to (animals) and they become more meaningful and significant to us,” he said. “When people have strong reactions to an incident like this, it is easy to understand where it comes from.”
Millions world-wide are still weighing in, arguing, debating and venting — largely through social media — about what transpired. Heated discussions on parental responsibility, animal rights, public safety and zoo rights are rampant.
That empathy can often be a good thing, local animals experts said, because better understanding of animals can lead to their better treatment.
Longtime animal advocate Tim Harrison said he has seen “a change in attitude” toward how wild animals are being treated.
He mentioned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer using Asian elephants in its performances and SeaWorld Entertainment agreeing to stop breeding killer whales and phasing out theatrical shows.
“We have a love affair with wild animals,” said Harrison, who began working with animals at age 16 as a veterinarian’s assistant. “We want to be close to these animals.”
Harrison frequently is hired to rescue wild and exotic animals in suburban settings. He says whenever humans interact with animals in the wild habitat, it “always goes bad for the animals.”
His hope is that this “terrible tragedy” can be used as a learning tool.
“We need to teach the proper behavior around animals,” he said. “There is a wrong message out there.”
LOCAL CAUTIONARY TALES
“We see it all the time, people treat their pets like they are their kids, their babies,” Kurt Merbs, Butler County dog warden supervisor said.
But, he said, in fact they are animals with animal instincts.
“All animals bite,” Merbs said. “They can and will bite under certain circumstances.”
Merbs said as difficult as it is to make a decision to put an animal down, even a family pet, sometimes it is necessary.
“It can be tough and sometimes it is a judgment call,” he said.
There are other times when he said the hesitation is puzzling.
In the summer of 2014, a 59-year-old Butler County woman was killed in her back yard by a pit bull owned by her adult daughter.
The dog was taken into quarantine and the daughter said she needed 24 hours to think about if she wanted the dog, which she had raised since it was a puppy, returned or euthanized.
Eventually the dog was euthanized.
Aaron Ireland, a wildlife officer assigned to Butler County, deals with coyotes, deer, raccoons, snakes, birds of prey, occasional alligators and even bobcats.
Ireland said for the most part people “love wildlife, want to see wildlife and want to help wildlife.”
But he stressed, wild animals are not pets.
“We say leave wildlife wild,” Ireland said.
That’s the lesson West Chester Twp. resident Chris Gibson stresses with his own children and grandchildren.
Gibson is a big fan of the Cincinnati Zoo and its gorilla exhibit, which will re-open to the public Tuesday with a taller, more restrictive barrier separating visitors from the gorilla pen.
But he sees how media entertainment can give animals a humanity that isn’t there.
“I loved the gorillas and it was unfortunate. But they are not like us,” Gibson said.
“I had to have a conversation with my grandson after it happened. The respect for all animals should always be there.”
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