A Gorilla In Our Midst: Western Lowlands And The Social Media High Life

  • by June 2, 2016

“A WORLDWIDE rescue mission has been launched today after thousands of Internet commentators were left stranded on higher moral ground in dangerously ignorant conditions, following an incident in a Cincinnati zoo where a gorilla was shot in a bid to protect a young boy.” -- parody site Waterford Whispers News

Almost one week later, we’re still talking about it. What’s up with Gorilla-gate?

For starters, with all the other complicated horrors happening in the world, this one—with its perfect archetypes—(man, or even better, baby, vs. beast) encapsulates many of the familiar memes we love to argue about on social media. The juicy ones that allow for maximum self-righteousness.

There’s the very popular mommy-shaming angle, plus the story provides a perfect platform for the animal-cruelty protestors who thought the shooting was senseless and want the family to pay.

Oh, and the sickening footage of the gorilla dragging the boy by his shorts through the water like a rag doll?  That’s a visual tailor-made to grab TV ratings. 



Adrenaline flowing, hearts sinking, we’re hoping to see what happened to the little one on the other side of the rock. But the footage stops, and it’s a mystery requiring a formal inquiry, trial, judge and jury.

Even animal behaviorists could not have predicted the outcome.

All we know is that Harambe, the lovable silverback gorilla, while at first seemingly showing protective and playful behavior toward the little human invader, was, as one news account put it, “an animal so strong that he could crush a coconut in his bare hand.” 

Not to mention that the reactive, screaming crowds got him agitated. All we get to investigate are the same few seconds of footage, repeated on an endless loop. So it turns every viewer into a sleuth. It’s "Rashomon." And thankfully, the boy will be OK.

Then there’s the symbolism--lots of it. First up: Innocence and the beast. What could be more pure than a little boy in shorts?  My immediate thought was about that agonizing photo of the 3-year-old Syrian boy--same age, dressed the same way--who lay dead at the shoreline in Turkey.  A haunting photo, it became a wake-up call for the world. Through one, we could see the many.

The situation has only gotten worse. This week alone, there were 1,000 more deaths among people fleeing on overcrowded boats launched by sleazy operators.

But the answers to the Syrian refugee problem are painful and complicated. It’s easier to focus on a beautiful lowland gorilla. Or put our energies into maligning the mother in Gorilla-gate, who has four kids. I don’t know a mom who hasn’t, momentarily, lost sight of her 3-year-old and had her life pass before her eyes.

Then again, getting lost in Macy’s is not like hopping a three-foot fence, crawling through four feet of shrubbery and jumping 15 feet down into a moat where a gorilla is waiting.

The child is African-American; already there have been articles investigating the family that are encoded with racist dog whistles.

So here’s the part that gets really complicated.

One of the elephants in the room, of course, symbolism-wise, is King Kong. There is certainly an interpretation of the original movie from the early 1930s that is racist. A powerful ape, whose home is invaded, and who gets taken away in chains to be “civilized” and others to profit from, becomes sick with love, ravages a pure white woman, and ends up shot.  

It’s a tragedy with the message “’Twas beauty killed the beast.” And in that famous image of Kong at the Empire State Building, he holds Fay Wray in the same way Harambe grabbed the kid.

Even if you see it merely as a hokey story and not a racial one, it is still an allegory about modern man: man vs. nature, and the cages we build for ourselves.

The theory that a zoo is little more than an animal jail is also surfacing and starting arguments, as is our need to anthropomorphize poor Harambe, a member of an endangered tribe.

Then there’s the other metaphor, begging to be spelled out: Everyone’s talking about a mother and a gorilla. Could it be Hillary vs. Bernie? Hillary vs. Trump? Trump vs. the media, as he drags the press through the water by their pants?

Another guy who was recognized for hosting a TV show before he ran for president, Ronald Reagan, won his re-election in 1984 with the  award-winning spot “Morning In America.” Within that same campaign, there was another commercial, also written and voiced by adman Hal Riney, called “The Bear.”

The words are prophetic: "There is a bear in the woods,” Riney says. “For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear."

Though the visual showed footage of a literal bear in the woods, the message was ambiguous. Was it referring to the Soviet Union? Nuclear build-up?  Environmentalism? Gun rights? 

We’ll never know. But it worked, persuading viewers that Reagan was a man who could take on the bear.

Now we live in crazier times. But Trump is espousing a similar kind of nostalgia for the golden times, when America was great — before all this trouble with women, diversity and political correctness got us off-course. 

The story of the gorilla allows us to focus, and fight, in a way that is vicious but comfortable.

Although we still have no idea if there is a bear.

16 comments about "A Gorilla In Our Midst: Western Lowlands And The Social Media High Life ".
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  1. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, June 2, 2016 at 5:55 p.m.

    At dinner the other night, one of the guys said he was going to join "Gorilla lives matter." I said, "Is that your line, Frank?" He waffled, but it was so soon it coulda been his. Every one laughed a little and we looked down at our menus and the conversation turned back to sports and awful people we had worked for along with the good ones..

  2. Barbara Lippert from, June 2, 2016 at 6:08 p.m.

    Thanks, Tom. There's a petition with over 300,000 signatures to make the parents responsible for the gorilla killing.
    Most people agree that while it's sad and horrific to have had to kill this majestic beast, it would have taken too long to tranquilize him while the kid's life was in jeopardy.  

  3. Frank Newcomer from Dystopian Empire, June 2, 2016 at 7:55 p.m.

    A professor once said to his class (mine), "all great stories start small; about a person, a need, an incident, and if you're really good, in the end, you address the very condition of our world." 

    He'd have liked you. 

  4. George Parker from Parker Consultants, June 2, 2016 at 8:09 p.m.

    What is really sad is that in his recent news conference, after avoiding questions on his University scam and pseudo efforts raising money for vets, etc, Trump was aked his opinion on the gorilla shooting... Why, oh why, does the media consider this a worthwhile topic for a future POTUS. What's next, his tip for America's got talent? 

  5. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER replied, June 2, 2016 at 8:19 p.m.

    it could be worse, barbara, the petition could demand that the kid is responsible....

  6. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, June 2, 2016 at 8:35 p.m.

    No one has discussed the logical alternative scenario, where this powerful animal panicked and inadvertently killed the child, or seriously harmed him, requiring immediate medical care.  In those critical moments, the staff had no choice but to make the decision they did, and those who were not burdened with such a difficult situation should understand the weight and urgency of that decision on those staff members.

  7. Barbara Lippert from, June 2, 2016 at 8:47 p.m.

    Absolutely, Dean. I agree with you. They did the right thing, sad as it is. And can you sue a 3-year old?

  8. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC replied, June 2, 2016 at 9:54 p.m.

    Yes, I know a three-year-old boy, and he is more wild and unpredictable than that gorilla!

  9. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, June 3, 2016 at 8:28 a.m.

    It seems to me that the cultural myth we were hoping for and grasping for is something like Mowgli or Tarzan.  The gorilla picks up the little boy and hands him to his mother.  We anthropomorphize animals at our peril and yet we must protect them -- particularly when we have removed them from all they know and we are in "control."  And that brings me to zoos, or animal jail as I believe they should be called.  Yes, I know, breeding programs, education,etc.   But most zoos aren't the San Diego Zoo.  And in cold climates, tropical animals are relegated to small indoor environments during the winter months. My childhood memory of the Washington National Zoo is of a tiger pacing, pacing, pacing in a cage.  It's not a particularly good zoo despite the constant panda-ring.  With Sea World stopping performance and captive breeding killer whales, it's time to rethink zoos altogether.  Hi def gives our children the chance to see animals as they are.  Not as sad prisoners for our "entertainment."  Protecting the child at the cost of Harambe's life was probably the right thing.  But why was Harambe there in the first place?

  10. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund, June 3, 2016 at 8:30 a.m.

    Homo sapiens - a Great Ape? Or the 'greatest' ape? (You unleashed the whole menagerie - from the dog whistles to the elephant in the room.)

  11. Melanie Howard from self employed, June 3, 2016 at 1:33 p.m.

    We live to judge others. If this parent is bad, then, because we are better, nothing will befall our children. If we wear modest clothes, we're safe from rapists. If we carry guns,we can't be shot. It's defensive magical thinking.

  12. Jo Holz from Holz Research, June 3, 2016 at 1:41 p.m.

    Great insights about the ways humans' relationships with apes have been portrayed and the symbolism there, but since you mentioned Ronald Reagan, let's not forget Bedtime for Bonzo, in which Reagan played a psychologist who tried to prove that he could teach morals to a chimp.  The bachelor shrink even hired a woman to act as his wife so that they could rear the chimp in a family setting and employ the child-rearing techniques of the day on him. 

  13. Aliza Freud from SheSpeaks, June 3, 2016 at 5:07 p.m.

    Well said and thank you for taking the time to say it. What's very disturbing is the fact that negativity toward women has permeated every aspect of our lives -- especially on social media where everything from our appearance to our parenting to our professional lives has become fodder for hurtful and insensitive comments.
    I think women need to stand up for one another and fight back against this negativity. I wonder if women would support a movement committed to curbing prejudicial or insensitive commentary about women online? 

  14. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, June 6, 2016 at 6:42 a.m.

    The problem arose when a mother of 4 children did not pay sufficient attention to her, no doubt, very active children. She understands the dynamic of taking that many small children to a public place better than most of us do, and should by now have "systems" in place to ensure that all the family stays together at all times. Especially given that the child that precipated the incident had indicated to her that he wanted to go into the enclosure.
    If you have ever stopped at a crosswalk near a school, you have probably encountered little people about 4-feet tall, and from 4 to 6 years-old. It takes awhile for them to cross the street, but nobody makes a mad dash from the troop, endangering themselves or their companions. Why? Because they are all attached to each other and to a teacher or parent on both ends of the chain. Same thing at large public spaces. And parents who are tired of running after a child who thinks it's fun to have someone chase them, and ending up with a serious adrenelin overload born of fear and love, will find this "chain" strategy or a similar tactic eliminates that. Other options are taking trams, etc., but at some point everyone will be on foot and you would not believe how fast that kid that can't get out of the bed for school can move in just a few seconds. 

  15. Jim English from The Met Museum, June 7, 2016 at 11:25 a.m.

    I guess I've been around advertitisng a bit too long.  I could think only of the Samsonite luggage ads of some 4 decades ago.
    That the young boy is well is the only thing that matters.  And, as you so correctly point out, we ought not to forget the plight of children in the Syrian refugee crisis.

  16. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 18, 2016 at 4:41 p.m.

    You point out the obvious, obviously. The gorilla did what gorillas do. He did nothing wrong in the world of gorillas. The blame does go to the mother who thinks she can take 4 small children without leashes to a public place such as a zoo (or museum or store) and keep them all together all the time. She had no business being there without the kids father or other help. If that kid, who may even be hyperactive, did not do this stupid thing, he was going to run in another direction and do something else. If she didn't know this before, she doesn't know her kid. She should pay, even if it is small enough amounts along time to remind her of her responsibilities. She also needs visits by social services. Her failures made one of our ancesters murdered and it is not acceptable as is. BTW, kids must also be able to sit at restaurants to take them there. Don't sue the restaurant because your kid is a vilda chiya. 

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