Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
On May 28, 2016, a 4-year-old boy managed to get beyond a protective fence in the Cincinnati Zoo and then tumbled 15 feet into the shallow moat in the cage of Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla. Onlookers shouted in horror as the 450-pound gorilla dragged the child with his head banging on the concrete. Whatever instinct prompted the animal to lay hold of the child, the child was clearly at risk. This was not a gentle, risk-free experience for the child.
Zoo staff responded immediately and came to the child’s rescue. The child was weak and helpless; the gorilla, extremely strong and obviously agitated by the cries of the crowd. The staff could have tranquilized the gorilla. But, because of his size, tranquilizing him would not have had an immediate effect. The child would still be in danger. So they shot and killed the gorilla.
This incident immediately unleashed a storm of criticism on the social media. Within just a few hours after a Facebook page called “Justice for Harambe” was created, it received more than 40,000 “likes.” Tens of thousands went on line to sign petitions demanding that the parents of the child be charged with child negligence and that they be held responsible for the death of the gorilla.
The language of many decrying the death of the gorilla was uncivil, rude and even threatening to the parents of the young boy. Critics formed a chorus calling for justice for the gorilla because his rights were violated. He had suffered an unmerited death. He was just being what he was supposed to be — a gorilla.
The concern for “animal rights” is not something new. Already from the 1970s, the movement to defend the rights of animals began to surface with serious intent. Activists argue against using animals for medical and cosmetics testing, killing them for furs, hunting them for pleasure, and raising them for human consumption in the inhumane conditions of factory farming. They want to protect animals from abuse or misuse.
Catholic ethical teaching also directs us to be merciful in the treatment of animals. In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis reminds us “that experimentation on animals is morally acceptable only if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives… human power has limits and that it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly” (Laudato Si, 130).
The great scholastic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas condemned causing needless suffering to animals. He argued that such cruelty demeans the kindness and goodness of the perpetrator himself (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, 112). Likewise, Pope Francis reminds us that “our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (Laudato Si, 92).
Creation reaches its apex in humanity. Of all creatures on earth, the human person alone is “able to know and love his Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 356). The human person has eternal destiny. Animals exist to be used to attain that destiny. As St. John Chrysostom said, the human person is “that great and wonderful living creature, more precious in the eyes of God than all other creatures! For him, the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation, exist” (St. John Chrysostom, In Gen. Sermo 2).
In a word, our care and compassion for animals, praiseworthy and necessary, does not lead us “to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth…” (Laudato Si, 90). Thus, protecting any animal is never as important as protecting the life of a single child in danger. Sadness at the death of an animal is one thing. Outrage is quite another. Would that more and more individuals feel a justified outrage at the loss of nearly a million innocent children at the hands of those who promote or tolerate abortion in America! Every child, from the moment of conception to the moment when God calls that person to himself, has a value far surpassing the creatures, comforts and goods of this passing world.