There Is No 'Bad Mother' to Blame for the Ohio Zoo Gorilla's Death

Harambe gorilla

What does it actually mean to be a "Good Mother"? Would a "Good Mother" divert her attention from her 3-year-old long enough so that he could somehow slip into a gorilla enclosure, resulting in the death of an 18-year-old silverback? According to many loud voices currently shouting online, a "Good Mother" would never have let that happen.


The devastating story of what transpired at the Cincinnati Zoo this weekend has shocked many people. A 3-year-old boy somehow made his way into the gorilla habitat and was trapped there by Harambe, the 18-year-old Western lowland silverback gorilla. The zoo followed protocol and ended up shooting and killing Harambe -- and rescuing the little boy. He is now home and doing fine, according to his family.

In this video, you can hear the little boy's mom calling out to him ... "Mommy's right here! ... Mommy loves you." It's unimaginable to think of how terrified she must have been.

But there are many out there who are calling for the heads of that little boy's parents, and more specifically, the head of his mother. Memes have already popped up denouncing the "Bad Mother" that let this happen.

And, a petition calling for "justice for Harambe" by holding the parents accountable is encouraging an investigation of the child's home.

It already has over 300,000 signatures.

Let's get honest here for a second. This whole "Bad Mother" thing is bullsh*t. I should know. I wrote and edited an anthology called The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality. The whole point of the book was to look at this red herring of the "Good Mother" and how it's actually damaging to women and families. This horrific and devastating incident did not happen because a so-called "Bad Mother" was on duty. It was a freak accident that ended in a senseless death.

In the introduction to my book, I share a story that plagued me as a new parent. My son was 4 weeks old when my husband went back to work. On the first day, I was home alone with him and he ended up falling from the couch to the hardwood floor while I had quickly run to answer the doorbell. I felt like the worst mother and probably cried harder than my son did.

The book is full of similar stories: mothers who doubt their own parenting because of incidences like these. Ones many are ashamed to talk about publicly, and even privately among friends, for fear of harsh judgment and condemnation. And because we rarely talk about this dark side of parenting -- that is perfectly normal -- we end up propagating the myth of the "Good Mother" and her faux idealism.

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This becomes even more dangerous and damaging when we talk about mothers of color. They have to work doubly hard to fight back against the notion of what it means to be a good mother, and there is no mistaking the fact that people who are crying out against the mother here have either overt or latent racism pushing them forward. And, you cannot write about this story and the outrage over this gorilla's death without noting that the response to actual kids' getting killed or shot does not get the same kind of mobilized reaction (even less media attention if the kids in question are black or brown).

The mother in this Cincinnati Zoo situation? She was in charge of five kids. Who knows what was happening that caused her to turn her back on her 3-year-old for the minute it took for him to somehow sneak his way into the gorilla habitat.

This mother? She could have been any one of us. Which mother among us has never had an instance where our kid got himself into a dangerous situation that we then beat ourselves over because we couldn't prevent it? For me, it happened when my son was 4 weeks old. For others, it's when your child is 6 and breaks her arm riding a bike. Or falls out of a tree while playing. Or runs into traffic -- no matter how tightly you think you've got a grip on his hand.

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Please. Stop blaming this tragedy on this mother. On these parents. (The fact that the father isn't having his named dragged through mud is a whole other issue in and of itself!) My guess is they are already beating themselves up internally over what happened. If experience has taught me anything, it's that they are reliving those tense 15 minutes over and over and over again. They are questioning how it could have happened. What they could have done better.

And yes, everyone and their mother has shared their opinion about how this mom did it all wrong, and what they would have done. But until you are in that situation, glass houses and stones and all that.

Let's have that conversation about zoos and conservation and endangered animals. Let's talk about zoo procedures around these kinds of events. Let's mourn the sad death of Harambe. And for heaven's sake, can we please talk about how a zoo has an enclosure that a 3-year-old was able to get into without anyone spotting or stopping him (parent or not!).

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But let's not brand this mother as Bad for what happened at the Cincinnati Zoo. It not only hurts this particular mother and family, but it also continues to perpetuate an unobtainable standard that only makes it harder for every mom.

Attacking this mother helps nobody. So instead of placing blame on her, let's look inward and cut ourselves some slack when it comes to mothering. This woman is not the enemy and should not be treated like she is. After all, it only takes a few seconds for an accident to happen -- you never know who might be at the end of this mob-mentality judgment next.


Image via Maxi/YouTube

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