“Parent shaming, or witch hunt on social media?” wondered the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Social media turns ugly after zoo episode.”
That about summed it up Monday.
Three days after her 4-year-old son plummeted 20 feet into the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit, after animal rights activists blamed her alleged poor parenting for the death of a beloved, endangered ape named Harambe, then called on child protective services to investigate her, the boy’s mother became the Internet’s most reviled mom.
Authorities have not yet released the name of the toddler who tumbled into the Gorilla World exhibit Saturday afternoon, nor have they identified his parents. But the Internet doesn’t care about these sorts of formalities.
A mob of online parenting critics mobilized over the holiday weekend, lambasting a nameless figure they were convinced had neglected her child inside the zoo Saturday and was to blame for the events that transpired. Then on Sunday, a woman claiming to be the toddler’s mother took to Facebook in a desperate attempt to defend herself.
“God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him. My son is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes. . . no broken bones or internal injuries,” the woman wrote on Facebook, according to People magazine. “As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids.”
She added: “Accidents happen. . .”
While some news outlets named the woman, others, including the Washington Post, unable to verify that she was in fact the mother in question, are not.
People wasted little time responding to the woman’s Facebook post with hateful comments, forcing the her to eventually remove it altogether, People Magazine reported. They then found the Facebook page for a preschool where a woman by the same name works, records show. They blasted that next, according to news reports, forcing the school to delete its page, too.
Other women who share her name on social media received threatening messages intended for her, attacks that called her “scum,” “a really bad mother” and a “(expletive) killer.”
“That animal is more important than your (expletive) kid,” one man messaged.
Another woman wrote: “u should’ve been shot.”
At times, the barrage of insults were racially charged, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.
By Monday, the threats grew so intense that Cincinnati police felt compelled to act.
“Even though they’re not direct death threats, we’re going to reach out to the mother and let her know what’s going on, if she doesn’t know already,” police spokesman Lt. Steve Saunders told the Enquirer. “We’re going to keep her in the loop. We’re going to err on the side of safety for her and her family.”
The mother found some sympathetic advocates, including the zoo director and several witnesses who said the woman was keeping a watchful eye on her children at the exhibit and, when she realized her son had fallen in with the 17-year-old, 400-pound silverback gorilla, tried to jump in after him.
A witness named Deidre Lykins described what she saw and heard in a long post on Facebook, which has been shared nearly 43,000 times:
“I was taking a pic of the female gorilla, when my eldest son yells, ‘what is he doing?’ I looked down, and to my surprise, there was a small child that had apparently, literally ‘flopped’ over the railing, where there was then about 3 feet of ground that the child quickly crawled through!! I assumed the woman next to me was the mother, getting ready to grab him until she says, ‘Whose kid is this?’ None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes before myself or husband could grab him, he went over! The crowd got a little frantic and the mother was calling for her son. Actually, just prior to him going over, but she couldn’t see him crawling through the bushes! She said ‘He was right here! I took a pic and his hand was in my back pocket and then gone!’ As she could find him nowhere, she looks to my husband (already over the railing talking to the child) and asks, ‘Sir, is he wearing green shorts?’ My husband reluctantly had to tell her yes, when she then nearly had a break down! They are both wanting to go over into the 15 foot drop, when I forbade my husband to do so, and attempted to calm the mother by calling 911 and assure her help was on the way.”
“The mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation!” Lykins wrote.
The incident began Saturday afternoon, when the boy crawled through a barrier, past some bushes and over the edge of a moat in the gorilla enclosure. In the moments before he fell, a witness heard the boy tell his mother he wanted to jump in with the gorillas, reported NBC affiliate WLWT-TV.
Video footage shot by horrified visitors shows Harambe straddling the boy in the far left corner of the enclosure. At first, he appears to be standing guard, like he is protecting the boy, but he becomes agitated by visitors’ chaotic response to the fall and suddenly snatches the boy’s leg, violently dragging him through the foot of water that covers the floor of the enclosure. The dragging pauses momentarily, and the boy seems to try and scoot away from the gorilla, but as quickly as he did before, Harambe latches onto the child’s foot again and drags him to the opposite end of the enclosure.
Minutes later, visitors heard the crack of a gunshot.
On Sunday, the zoo wrote a lengthy statement on Facebook explaining why they chose to shoot the 17-year-old gorilla rather than tranquilize him. They said the child’s life was in danger, and when the zookeepers called for the gorillas to exit the enclosure, Harambe did not obey like the two other females inside. Tranquilizing the ape, they wrote, would have put the child at greater risk because it takes minutes for the drug to take effect and the dart could have agitated him further.
At a news conference Monday, Zoo Director Thane Maynard further defended the zoo’s decision to fatally shoot the gorilla, whose nickname was “handsome Harambe.”
“We’re talking about an animal that I’ve seen crush a coconut with one hand,” Maynard said, noting that the stress of the situation had made the gorilla’s behavior even more erratic. “The child was being dragged around, his head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing.”
The director also addressed suggestions that the zoo was to blame for the fall since the barriers didn’t successfully keep the child out. Maynard told reporters the facility is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and that the enclosure barriers exceed recommendations, Fox News 8 in Cleveland reported.
“You can lock your car, you can lock your house, but if someone really wants to, they can get in,” Maynard said at the news conference. “Do you know any 4-year-olds? They can climb over anything.”
No charges, parenting attacked
But despite Maynard’s words and law enforcement’s decision not to press any charges against the woman, critics continued to assault her parenting.
During interviews in which they defended the zoo’s lethal response to the situation, two well-known wildlife experts and TV personalities, Jack Hanna and Jeff Corwin, attacked her parenting.
“Zoos aren’t your baby sitter,” Corwin told Fox 25 News. “Take a break from the cell phone and the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time, for this kid, for this little boy to find himself in this situation. And ultimately, it’s the gorilla that has paid that price.”
Corwin emphasized that the loss of Harambe is especially devestating because his species is on the “precipice of extinction.”
“No amount of money or biology or science can ever bring back what was lost with the death of this gorilla,” he said.
In an interview on CBS This Morning, Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said he agreed “1,000 percent” with the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla. But he, too, spoke on the importance of parental supervision at zoos, comparing the locations to parks and malls.
“Just watch your kids. . . . I’m sure that the mother here did the best she could. I guess maybe she was doing something else, I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” he said.
By Tuesday morning, a Facebook group called Justice for Harambe had amassed 109,544 likes and described its purpose as a page to raise awareness about “Harambe’s murder” and to “see charges brought against those responsible.” A separate Change.org petition asking child protective services to investigate the mother had been signed more than 293,000 times and a second petition, calling for the passage of a “Harambe’s law” that would hold any negligent party criminally and financially responsible if an endangered animal dies due to human error, had been signed nearly 100,000 times.