When I first heard that a gorilla had been euthanized to save the life of a toddler who had fallen into a zoo enclosure in Cincinnati, I knew the story was going to be big. What I didn’t necessarily expect was Cecil the Lion levels of outrage, with some calling the act “murder” and petitioning for “justice.”

As is typical in the internet age, the anger spread much more quickly than the facts. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all the online vigilantism is seeing how many people continue to say it is obvious to them that the gorilla was “protecting” the boy or could have been tranquilized – despite repeated statements to the contrary by experts like Jack Hanna. Seeing so many people quickly rush to judgment over their personal perception of a video regardless of expert opinions certainly reminds me of what we deal with in agriculture when emotions tend to rule the day over science and research.  

What officially crossed the line for me was seeing a social media comment about how killing the gorilla to save the boy was uncalled for because gorillas are rare, and humans are not...What does it say about how our society has come to view and value human and animal life when it’s even a question whether or not zoo officials should have taken every action possible to bring the child to safety?

What scares me the most is that this public outrage may make emergency responders hesitate in a similar situation. If an accident like this happens again, what if zoo officials don’t make the tough call to put down an animal to save a person – or don’t make it quickly enough? While I know animal rights activists like PETA wouldn’t be overly bothered by a person’s death to preserve an animal, I have to hope that the vast majority of the #JusticeForHarambe crowd would be.  

I’m reminded of a study from a few years ago where participants were presented with a scenario that placed both their pet and a foreign tourist in danger and asked which one they would save. A shocking amount – 40% – said they would save the pet. According to one animal rights activist in the book Speciesism, when faced with a choice of saving a dog or a child you should flip a coin – because both have the same value. 

I personally am glad the zoo staff in Cincinnati did not take this approach. Aren’t you?