Blog: How the sadness of a gorilla’s death, can help us understand the need for empathy instead of blame

With a training company focussed on health and social care, it may seem strange and surprising that today’s blog is focussed on a gorilla…Stay with me though, as whilst the story is about  a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla named Harambe, that lived in Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in the USA, the focus of this story is one of how we perceive situations that have a tragic element to them and search for someone to blame, rather than, as this reporter Mel Robbins (CNN) suggests in her article, and what forms the core basis of the training we offer….. we empathise instead.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a 3-year-old boy who climbed through a barrier at the Zoo and tumbled into the gorilla enclosure below. The gorilla, Harambe, dragged him (with some violence according to some of those who witnesses) through  the enclosure and he also appeared to take a protective guard stance over him. At one point, Harambe stood the boy up and pulled up his pants.

As stated by Mel in her article:

“This scene must have been shocking to witness as it unfolded. And it became even more terrible when the zoo officials made the only decision they could: to fatally shoot their beloved Harambe to protect the boy, who miraculously was unharmed.
boy falls into gorilla habitat pkg nr_00010114

In this 21st-century age of viral connectedness, all of us are processing a muted version of that same shock and fear. And now we are doing what we always do: Starting to point our fingers in judgment.
We start with the parents: Arrest them! Charge them! They are to blame! The mother, more than the father, of course! ‘What kind of parent allows herself to get momentarily distracted at the zoo, anyway?’ Come on! Because 3-year-olds always listen and they never dart away from their parents. So … the parents are responsible! They must be charged with some kind of crime — or at least publicly vilified for their stupidity!
While we’re at it, let’s blame the crowd, too. They were so busy filming the whole thing and screaming louder and louder — making a racket that witnesses say agitated Harambe. If they had just shut up, maybe things could have been different. So let’s round up the crowd, because everyone knows when a 3-year-old falls into a zoo enclosure, you should know exactly what to do: Stay calm and be quiet. Isn’t it obvious?
And then the zoo itself, of course, is to blame. They created the attraction in the first place, they have animals in captivity that belong in the wild, they have an enclosure a child can slip through, and they made the decision to shoot the gorilla instead of trying to tranquilize it”‘
The CNN reporter goes on to say that:
“The whole episode is sad — a child is safe, but another living being has died. What’s even more tragic is our insatiable need to find fault in everything that happens in life. In that regard, we are all at fault here.
What if instead of lawyering up and assigning blame like we always do, we take a step back in this instance and try a little empathy? The parents didn’t throw the kid into the enclosure, the crowd didn’t mean to agitate Harambe and the zoo didn’t want to have to kill him.”
So why is empathy important?
Carrie Menkle Meadow, who is a professor of law at UC Irvine School of Law from Georgetown University Law Center states that “empathy is necessary not only for emotional literacy at a personal level, but to be able to understand, feel, engage and act when in situations of conflict with others”. Empathy is something that not only forms the basis of our training for health and social care professionals in handling difficult conversations and situations, reducing conflict and looking after their own well-being, but was instrumental for me  when the obvious and expected thing for me to feel and do after the death of a child in hospital, was blame and become consumed with anger and even hate.
It wasn’t easy to not go down this almost expected and automatic route of blame, especially as I had felt and still do, that every chance to have saved this child was not taken. It wasn’t easy to not react with more anger at the hospitals dismissive and apathetic responses to me. But luckily for me, what I had, was years of counselling training and practice and self awareness, which propelled me down the route of, yes challenging those involved, but also looking beyond their behaviours (individually and organisationally) seeing the whole picture and empathising with them, empathising with those who almost felt like my enemy. But it transformed my thinking, slowly at first, but it took my mind away from blame and pure anger, to knowledge, (that I would not have gained without empathy) understanding and even wisdom.
I had to ask myself some very tough questions of myself and my perceived part in the events. I had to ask – and here’s the thing…answer honestly about what I was really trying to achieve.Then I had to analyse through the use of empathy, to get the optimum outcome out of such a devastating life event. Empathising was not the easy route, but the one that gave me the most measured, compassionate, informed outcome.
I expect, the somewhat traumatised parents of this little boy are now pulling apart every minute detail of their actions that day. The Zoo staff, who no doubt loved this majestic animal, that has lost his life, are asking lots of questions of themselves too. If I was one of the visitors, I would be asking whether I could have added to the panic. But we are all emotional beings and we will never be perfect. But one of our most powerful resources we have to manage and help with these imperfections, mistakes and sometimes accidents is to empathise with another.To feel what it might be like and then we stand a chance of responding in the best way possible. As this reporter puts it: “Try empathy — not blame”.
In gorilla's death, critics blame mother, Cincinnati Zoo

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