At the end of the film Old Yeller (1957), the titular dog hero defends a young boy, Travis, from a rabid wolf. In the process, Old Yeller is bitten by the wolf; he soon comes down with rabies, and begins growling at Travis. Travis tearfully takes Old Yeller out to the woods and shoots him. His father explains to him, “Things like that happen. They may seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that’s how life is part of the time.”
What a sap.
How else to interpret the wildly overblown attention placed on the shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo?
For those who were either hiding under a rock or paying tribute to fallen soldiers over the Memorial Day weekend, here’s the story: A mother turned her back on her four-year-old son for a moment at the zoo. The boy, being four years old, immediately climbed into the gorilla cage, where he plummeted some 15 feet into a moat. A 17-year-old, 400-plus-pound Western lowland silverback gorilla named Harambe promptly ran over to the boy, standing over him. Then, irritated by the screaming visitors, he grabbed the boy by the ankle and dragged him through the water. Zoo director Thane Maynard explained: “The child was being dragged around. His head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing. The child was at risk. . . . So when it was determined that the child was being injured . . . we had to make a decision.”
RELATED: In Defense of the Cincinnati Zoo
It was the right decision. Jack Hannah, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, explained, “I have seen a silverback gorilla take a green coconut and crush it — beyond the strength of anything you know. So it’s a choice between a human life and an animal life.”
This story drove celebrities to decry the zoo’s supposed brutality. It drove hundreds of headlines and the Facebook trending hashtag #JusticeForHarambe. It drove 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to comment. And it drove the Hamilton County prosecutors’ office to meet with police about possible action against the boy’s parents.
So here’s the question: What’s the big deal?
This is a sad story, undoubtedly. Despite the media’s warm feelings about gorillas, the natural reaction of a gorilla like Harambe would not be to treat the kid like Tarzan and teach him to tree-surf. Harambe was obviously a beautiful creature, and it feels terrible that he had to be killed. It’s not Harambe’s fault that a human child fell into his enclosure. But as Travis’s dad puts it, “Things like that happen.”
Unless they don’t.
First, the nature-worshippers. The case for humans’ supreme worth over animals isn’t compelling without a religious rationale. Yes, human beings build and create. Yes, human beings think and feel deeply and seek answers to questions. Animals are our intellectual inferiors. But that’s not a moral case why human beings matter more. In fact, human beings are far more destructive to the environment than any other species; our occupancy of the planet represents the truest threat to endangered species, for example. Secularists who are honest with themselves run up against the uncomfortable truth that nothing makes human beings more valuable or special than animals.
And honest secularists will admit it. As Jonathan Tobin writes at Commentary, “Princeton philosopher Peter Singer . . . famously spoke of a pig’s life as being equal to that of any child.”
But even that doesn’t go far enough. To the honest secular Left, human beings are less valuable than pigs or gorillas: pigs and gorillas don’t threaten the planet. Deep-green author Bron Taylor explains at Huffington Post:
If one starts from an ethical claim that humanity ought not drive other species off the planet, and add scientific understandings about the value of an individual organism to the viability of its species, an endangered animal such as Harambe could be considered more valuable than one that is not valuable in this way.
There are fewer silverback gorillas in the world than four-year-old children; thus, four-year-old children are less valuable than silverback gorillas, and killing an innocent gorilla to save an innocent child is a grave injustice. Taylor castigates human beings for their failure to buy this argument: “It is really the ideology of human supremacy” that stands between them and his own logical conclusion. No wonder environmentalists are deeply perturbed by the notion of a dead gorilla but absolutely sanguine about the killing of millions of unborn children each year.
A society that treats animals like humans is a society that will treat humans like animals.
Now, this is a fringe argument, to be sure. But its logic appeals on an emotional level to a broad base of Americans. As religious practice declines — as fewer and fewer Americans believe the Genesis-based statements that man is made in God’s image, and that man has the capacity to rule over the animals — more Americans anthropomorphize animals, turning them into the best form of humans: all caring, all the time, innocents through and through, capable of moral action. Americans who have never had to face down the threat of wild animals can afford to treat wild animals as stuffed animals. Americans who loved The Lion King made a far bigger fuss over the death of Cecil the Lion than over the Zimbabweans who actually worry about being killed by a lion (one Zimbabwean described the experience in the New York Times: “In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved. . . . They are objects of terror”). On a far less dramatic level, more and more Americans are skipping child-bearing and rearing in favor of pet ownership, labeling Spot a “four-legged child.”
Animals aren’t children. And human beings aren’t less valuable than animals. A society that treats animals like humans is a society that will treat humans like animals.
So sure, let’s take a moment to be upset about the fate of Harambe — but only a moment. Then let’s remember that our virtue-signaling about the death of a 450-pound gorilla to save the life of a small child isn’t virtuous at all — it’s a sign that our virtue has been twisted in ugly ways that will end with more human suffering in the end.
— Ben Shapiro is the author of Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.