I remember a time when people would have reacted with human concern over a little boy falling into a wild animal enclosure at the zoo. We would have asked things like, “Is he going to survive? What kind of injuries did he have, and what medical expenses are involved?  How is his mother, after she watched such a thing happen to her son?” And most of all, we would have exclaimed, “Thank God, he’s okay!”

Instead something else altogether has emerged. A new low of vicious aggression is being loosed on that family, like the dam of decency has entirely collapsed.  Ordinary people are feverishly discussing whether zookeepers should have risked the boy’s life to save the gorilla’s.

It’s a tragic situation, not only because we lost a rare, majestic animal, but because we’ve lost all semblance of compassion and reason.  Granted, our national reason has been crumbling for a while now, but this week has been a siren.  The storm isn’t “over there” somewhere.  We’re in it.

Our unlikely shelter from the storm lies in philosophical clarity.  I know, it sounds ludicrous when what we need is something muscular and bold!  But an ADEQUATE ANTHROPOLOGY, a total vision of man, which St. John Paul outlined in his theology of the body, can carry us through this turmoil.

For a week, we have witnessed a duel between e·col·o·gy (the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings) and an·thro·pol·o·gy (the study of humankind, in particular).  How do we weigh the welfare of a human child against the welfare of a wild animal?

Pope Francis, drafting on St. John Paul, wrote, “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.”

When humans are in right relationship with each other and with God, right relationship with animals and their environment follows.  But one comes first; it’s necessary to have an adequate anthropology in order to develop a properly respectful ecology.

Otherwise we will drift to one of two extremes: a technocracy in which animals are judged solely for their usefulness and contribution to human gain, a mindset repugnant to reasonable people.  The other extreme is a “romantic individualism,” a tendency to regard one’s own emotions over reason and the social good.

Perhaps our highly technocratic society has created these romantic individualists in reaction to its ruthlessness.  However, the romantic individualist who prefers death for a young child (or his mother) is no less ruthless.  Both standings are false, and create a cultural schizophrenia in which only the extremes are played.  The rational middle has no voice.

I’ve had the impression that extreme animal-lovers, those who honestly value animals above humans, have been deeply hurt.  They’ve lost faith in humankind and believe it to be so fatally flawed as to deserve extinction.  One comment on the Cincinnati Zoo story reads: “Humanity sucks.”

I get that.  Human beings are complicated, wounded and prone to addictions that can cause us to act inhumanly.  Relationships are hard.  Many of us have been so egregiously hurt by other human beings, it’s a wonder we live in society at all and haven’t holed up in a cave with a volleyball for company.  We have, in turn, hurt others deeply, in ways we may not even know.

In contrast, animals seem noble.  Their actions are more predictable, they don’t talk back or argue, and most of them will never harm us.  In classical terms, they lack free will, so they are not capable of wishing evil or destruction on another creature.  They may be hungry, and their downstream neighbors on the food chain may experience destruction thereby, but it’s not a willed evil.

We human beings can will evil.  The commenters on the internet who are now witch-hunting the mother of that hapless child who fell into the gorilla enclosure are willing evil.  It is, simultaneously, the best and the worst about us, that free will.  It can be used for the most vicious purposes, or it can be used for the greatest good.

And that greatest good is love.  Love is the peephole through which we can glimpse God.  Without love, we cannot comprehend ourselves or our place in the universe.  “Man’s life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” (St. John Paul II)

We have to recognize the capacity of human beings for love, for the free choices that elevate other persons over our own emotions.  The pitiable zookeepers who had to place the shot to save the boy may have demonstrated the greatest love in this whole story.  They had the strongest emotional connection to the gorilla and the most to lose professionally, but they did the hard thing.

As much as we might mourn the loss of Harambe the gorilla, and lament the circumstances that caused his death, we nevertheless recognize the primacy of the human child, and allow ourselves to suffer with the family and the zookeepers and all animal lovers. To value the life of the child is not to diminish the loss of the animal; it simply recognizes that there is an order and balance in the universe.

When we value animals over human beings, a behavior called biophilia, we create imbalance.  Human beings are social creatures; we’re hardwired for it.  The language of our bodies tells us we are meant for others.  Our voices speak to, and our ears hear each other.  Our arms embrace.  Infants deprived of human touch sicken and sometimes die for lack of contact.  The body tells us that we have a social design.

When humans live in (genuine) community with each other, needs are met by mutual giving. We don’t “use” each other; there is a reciprocity.  But when a human depends on an animal to be his or her community, the animal winds up being used, despite the best intentions of the person. Both the human and the animal are degraded in the process.

One famous example is Tim Treadwell, who was killed and partially eaten by a brown bear in Katmai National Park in 2003, after a career of camping on “bear highways” in Alaska.  Treadwell, a former addict, grew famous after appearing on Letterman, promoting his book Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska.  A close friend suggested, “Maybe he replaced the feelings he got from drugs and drinking with acceptance from animals.”  Eventually a bear, behaving in an unusual manner, reacted. Treadwell was degraded in the literal sense.

Susan Clayton, a psychology researcher at the College of Wooster in Ohio, writes that humans crave contact with “the wild” because we have moved so far from it in our modern cities.  People sense the spiritual nature of the universe, and try to enter it through animals, because religion is no longer taught or is taught in ways that don’t reach them.

Our contact with animals has the positive effect of causing us to care deeply about the creation we have received as a precious gift, and that’s a very good thing.  But if we ignore the boundaries inherent in nature, we may end up harming the very creatures we want to protect.  Human contact with wild animals causes them to lose their natural fear of people.  It can create a dependency in the animal, where there was once self-sufficiency. The very wildness that is so appealing to us is diluted.

This brings us back to an anthropology-based ecology.

Take the endangered gorilla in particular… the very reason the Cincinnati Zoo has a gorilla program to breed and protect them is because their natural habitat in central Africa has been devastated.  Native African villagers have pushed farther and farther into the wild to gather charcoal, which is a matter of survival for them but a loss of habitat for the gorillas.  Enterprising companies lead tours into the wild so that humans can observe the gorillas in situ for a price.  Others lead hunting parties, also for a fee. Closer contact with humans has contributed to disease.  Worst of all, poachers hunt gorillas for meat and amulets (for the wealthy and the superstitious).

Poaching is a crime which often goes unpunished for lack of enforcement resources in impoverished regions. Logging brings much-needed employment, and villagers can hardly be blamed for trying to survive, but profits from tours and timber may be taken out of the region. It’s easier to lash out at the mother of a slippery three-year old, but she is not the problem.  Poverty, disease, and displacement of people in Africa is the problem.

Are these not problems worthy of a solution because humans are involved?

And there are solutions. One of the cleverest has been to recruit poachers, who are quite familiar with animal behavior, for paid ranger positions made possible by ecotourism dollars.  More solutions would fall out of an adequate anthropology.

As St. John Paul wrote, the only proper response to a human being, rightly regarded, is love.  That is an adequate anthropology.  When human issues are addressed, the result is a healthy natural habitat for animals.  One follows the other; it must.  If only the gorillas were protected, and not the humans first, the originating causes for the endangerment would persist.

It’s because it’s written into the fabric of the universe; we’re designed to love humans first.  When we do, our relationship with the rest of creation will balance itself.


Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S., is Director of Outreach for TOBET in Irving, Texas.