True or false:
It is irresponsible and negligent for a parent to take a picture of his or her small child in public, especially at a crowded, dangerous place like the zoo. Every photograph of grinning, sticky-faced siblings, posing in front of the aquarium or the cat house, is evidence of the crime of child endangerment.
Well, let's think about what has to happen for a parent to take a photo of her child in public. First the parent has to let go of the child. She needs both hands to manipulate the camera or the smart phone. Then she has to step a few feet away -- maybe a dozen feet or more, certainly out of arms' reach. She has to take her eyes off her charges for long enough to select the proper settings or apps before finally locating them in the viewfinder. Once the picture is taken, she may pause to stow the camera away before returning and once again securing the child in a firm grip.
She lets go. She steps several feet away. She looks elsewhere. It is long enough.
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What I see in the great rush to condemn the mother (it is always the mother) of a small child who crawled into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo this week: a widespread refusal to believe that bad things can happen to "good people like me." She MUST have done something wrong (i.e., "something I would never do") for a terrible thing to happen to her child.
It's very important for some people to put distance between the grieving and themselves. I see this elsewhere; I often read articles about cycling accidents, because I am interested in traffic safety in my town, and let me tell you, getting hit by a drunk driver when you had the right of way is no excuse: you should have been more aware or you shouldn't have been on that road, you two-wheeled freak. We all know that many cyclists today completely ignore the law. So it goes.
I think we can extrapolate from the evidence (many small children at zoos, the existence of preschool educational programs at zoos) that it is widely believed (whatever some folks may think) that a zoo is a good place to take small children for a fun family outing. So to go so far as to say "well, of course you don't take a 3-y-o to a zoo, that's for older children" is, shall we say, OUTSIDE THE MAINSTREAM of thinking.
The notion that no reasonable parent would ever enter a situation where a 3-year-old might escape her notice long enough to get into serious trouble is a little more understandable, given the low amount of experience that many people have with the wide variety of three-year-olds. Most people only ever parent zero to two of them.
Some commenters who take a position closer to my own have been focusing on "It's not possible to keep your eyes on a three-year-old 100% of the time so they can't escape." I'd like to point out that we don't really WANT mothers (it's always mothers, isn't it) to do what would be necessary to prevent three-year-olds from escaping. Because we would have to do more than just watch them all the time. We would have to grip them all the time. That is why I began by having you think about picture-taking, how it is an utterly normal thing for parents of children to do at zoos, take their child's picture; and how the act of taking a picture contains within it all the possibility that allows for an escaping child.
There's this strange thing about children: they want to explore the world around them. They will pull and actively try to escape you. The zoos, along with science museums and other places that attract children, incidentally, have this odd feature (often, not always) -- they have exhibits here and there that seem to encourage children to explore the environment. "Please touch," they will have signs up for the petting zoo, or they will have fish tanks that are down near the eye level of toddlers, or they will have buttons to push and things like that. It seems almost as if the zoos.... EXPECT there to be three-year-olds with their parents, three-year-olds who are not buckled into strollers! I think the last few times I've been to the zoo I've even seen groups of preschoolers on a field trip, not with their parents, but with teachers and chaperones!
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I'm very sorry that the zoo had to shoot the gorilla. I'm thrilled that they apparently had a backup plan with a "dangerous animal response team" that included a take-down-the-animal plan. This was good planning for a situation that, however unthinkable it may be, clearly someone had thought about it in advance. It's the zoos' job to keep people away from the animals and animals away from the people.
And yet... sometimes people get in.
Isn't it also the zoos' responsibility to protect the animals from people who might harm them? Is it really reasonable to assume that visitors will police themselves sufficiently that the exhibits need not be made secure?
I'm thinking back to the last time a determined adult got into an exhibit (it does happen) and wondering if anyone was discussing whether zoos have a responsibility, grounded in the welfare of the animals, to make it impossible for determined persons to get into the exhibits. I think they do have a responsibility to make it very difficult for a determined adult to get into an exhibit. It is a completely foreseeable risk that a determined adult will TRY to get into an exhibit, and it really ought to be harder for a determined child to get in than a determined adult -- so if the zoos designed to make it extremely difficult for determined adults to get in, it ought to be that much harder for a determined child to get in.
It is a known risk that people occasionally attempt to breach the barriers -- not just children, but also adults. Zoos face a design problem that we should probably acknowledge: their mission is to bring us close to the animals while their responsibility is to keep us separated from them. I have some respect for the argument that this design problem, with its inherent tension, represents a set of risks that is not worth the benefits; that is a value judgment and we can come to different conclusions about it. I don't have any respect for the argument that this design problem doesn't exist.
Without saying anyone was at fault, I'm going to say that the design of the exhibit is probably the ultimate cause of this disaster.
OK, then... why don't you go so far as to say "the zoo was at FAULT," then?
Because design problems that involve inherent tensions between two design goals are notoriously difficult, and designers can act in good faith from start to finish, with the best of analyses, but still bad things can happen. I simply don't know enough details, and likely you don't either.
Is it possible to design a zoo in which all barriers CANNOT be breached? Yes; would people want to go to that zoo? Would those who argue for better habitats for the animals' welfare be pleased with that zoo? It's possible that the designers really did act in bad faith, that they designed an exhibit that they knew was not up to whatever the commonly accepted standards of zoo barriers were at the time. That would be a kind of fault. It's possible that the zoo staff acted in bad faith: that they disabled safeguards that were part of the system put into place by the designers, or that the barriers were not well maintained, or something like that. That would be a kind of fault. But it's possible to have a design that turns out to BE FAULTY (in retrospect) without any person actually being "at fault."
The public may have unreasonable expectations of the designers here. Not that it isn't reasonable to have as your GOAL "no one shall breach this exhibit." But that the public hasn't taken the time to really imagine what the tradeoffs would be that would make it literally impossible for no determined person to breach the exhibit, and they haven't considered that some of the things that make exhibit-breaches possible would make them enjoy the zoo less. Might even make them complain about the poorly-designed exhibits.
Here are some links for your perusal.
In the last link, a zoo official says of the exhibit, "It is already safe... People who want to jump in will always find a way."
For the sake of the animals as well as the people, maybe we should be asking why that is good enough. It simply isn't true that a zoo can't be built with barriers that visitors can't breach. We certainly try to manage it in prisons that hold human beings and in museums that hold valuable artifacts.
To ask why we accept risks is not necessarily to mandate that we remove risks. I respect those who argue that the benefits of zoos aren't worth the risks of bringing the public in close contact with animals. That Even though we don't come down in the same place, they and I recognize that there is a tension between the risks and benefits of zoo design, that it is acceptable to run some risk in order to reap some benefit, if the benefit is good enough.
It turns out that there is also a tension between the risks and benefits of bringing children out into the world. If we are going to cut the zoo enclosure designers any slack here, if we are going to say about those who build barriers to protect the animals "You can't be expected to stop every determined person from getting in," then we also have to be ready to say about all those charged with children, "You can't be expected to stop every mischief that could possibly happen."
In both cases, we could. But we choose not to. Because there are risks in that direction too.