There is no question that the lives of animals in modern zoos are on people’s minds all across the world lately. Harambe the gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo was shot to death after a young boy managed to fall into his enclosure; Rebel the wolf at a Wisconsin zoo was euthanized after nipping at a young boy’s finger when he recklessly placed his hands through the enclosure bars; Zeya the leopard escaped her enclosure at a Utah zoo…
However, one of the more interesting stories recently involved neither an animal escape nor a close physical human interaction. After spending several seconds crouched and locked in a staring match with a two-year-old zoo visitor at Chiba Zoological Park in Japan, a male lion charged toward the toddler, who had turned his back. The lion did not reach the boy, but instead smashed head first into the protective wall of his glass display. The boy was startled by the noise, turning around to see the 400-pound lion pawing at him. Zookeepers claimed that the lion did not mean the boy any harm, and explained that he regularly pounces at children just because he wants to play with them.
I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to say when The Dodo asked me to comment. The boy was unharmed. The lion ambled away. The glass didn’t shatter. There was no bloodshed.
What I came up with was simply this: “Lions are natural wild predators and the child in this video, especially when turning his back to the massive feline, becomes prey in the animal’s eyes. The firm glass wall held the lion inside his enclosure, surely frustrating his innate instincts. But, luckily for the family, if the barrier had not held, the consequences could have been catastrophic.”
Why are We Creating Conflict?
Not only has the video gone viral, but so has the story, being run in the U.S., England, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Croatia. I wonder why. Is it because the image is so jarring to watch? Is it because we end that video with a sense of relief? Or, is it because, while intensely fascinated with wild animals, we also know that this is not what the human relationship with lions or other wild predators is meant to be?
It’s interesting that, in Africa, there is human conflict with lions as people further encroach into lion habitat, while in cities the world over, we put lions in close contact with humans (for the mere entertainment value of seeing these massive felines up close). It’s frightening that we blithely assume the glass will hold, or that the barrier will contain, or that the fence cannot have fingers poked through. It’s shocking that we’re amazed when things go dreadfully — or deadly — wrong.
There’s a young boy alive today in Ohio because Harambe the gorilla was benevolent. There’s a young boy alive today in Japan because the glass held. We can watch the videos because the outcome was not a human fatality. One day, the video will have a dramatically and tragically different ending. Will we still want to watch?