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I Could Have Been the Mom at the Cincinnati Zoo

I Could Have Been the Mom at the Cincinnati Zoo

Many have been talking about the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo this weekend. A young boy slipped away from his mother and climbed into the exhibit with the zoo’s gorilla. Many said the gorilla was acting protective toward the young boy, but the zoo staff believed his posture was threatening and shot him.

In the days since the incident many on social media have pointed fingers at the little boy’s mother. Many have quipped that the gorilla took better care of her child than she did and others declared the mother should have been shot instead of the gorilla. A petition calling for Child Protective Services to investigate the mother for neglect gathered over 100,000 signatures. Many people sent threatening messages to her and several other people who shared her name. The vitriol pointed in her direction has been heated and blood-thirsty.

As I read the story and heard the mother had four children a stark realization came to my mind- this could have happened to me. We have four children ten and under. A couple of months ago I took all four of them to the Birmingham Zoo by myself. Thankfully nothing catastrophic happened, but I spent the entire trip counting. (Our youngest stayed in a stroller so I only had to count three.) My children can fall behind, wander, or dart off at the drop of a hat. Even if I stay vigilant for 99.999% of a trip it will be the .001% when I find myself having to ask, “where is your sister? Where is your sister?”

This perspective would not have entered my mind fifteen years ago. At that time I had never experienced what it was like to have children. I became easily annoyed by a crying baby in a restaurant because the parents should be able to control their children. Faced with a story like the one from the Cincinnati Zoo my reaction would have been to place blame and scorn upon this mother who in my opinion was an obvious failure at making her children obey.

This was not my response when I first read this story in 2016 though, because experience has taught me that parenting is really hard, especially in public places. For the last two months, whenever my fifteen month-old son does not like what is happening around him he lets out an ear-splitting squeal. He often does this in restaurants, where we cannot let him down out of the high chair to roam around. We’ve tried many things to remedy this situation- telling him “no,” trying to teach him to sign “more” with his hands, and anything else we can think of in the desperate moment. Nothing works, because we cannot “control” him. He is a human being made in the image of God with a will of his own which has not been tempered by age, maturity, knowledge, or the new birth. He wants whatever he wants at that moment and squealing is his method for announcing this to the world.

I also only have to remember an incident from my own childhood. My family was at a waterpark and I was swimming in a wave pool. My mother was sitting on the side of the pool and showed me where she would be sitting. In a split-second they could not find me. They searched the bottom of the pool frantically as they were afraid I had drowned. Little did they know that on a whim I got out of the pool quickly because I forgot where my mother was sitting and started walking around the park trying to find her. In the blink of an eye a forgetful child slipped away.

I tell these stories from my own life because I know where this mom is coming from. You don’t have to be negligent, foolish, or derelict in your duty as a parent for your child to climb into a zoo exhibit. You only need to look away for a moment, close your eyes to take a deep breath, answer a question from one of your other children, or not have eyes in the back of your head.

We would know these things if culturally we developed a quality we seem to have forgotten- empathy. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is an essential character trait we abandoned in our culture. Because we can share our immediate thoughts on the internet and then feel the need to defend them, we started forsaking the simple act of putting ourselves in another person’s place before we started calling for them to be prosecuted for a crime or have their children removed from their home.

For the person who follows Jesus, empathy and compassion for people in difficult situations is not an option. We read in the New Testament that Jesus came to earth and was tempted in everything we were, but without sin. The writer of Hebrews also pointed to Jesus’ experience with weakness and suffering as a reason to pray to him because he is a merciful and faithful high priest who hears our prayers.

Christian, think about this for a minute. Jesus walked through the human experience of temptation, weakness, and suffering. Now when we go to him he welcomes us into his presence and sympathizes with our weaknesses. He hears us, understands us, and shows us his grace. If this is what the Christian receives from Jesus, how could we not show it to others? This is not just about the mom from the Cincinnati Zoo, but every person we hear about or encounter who struggles and fails. We fail, we struggle, we are weak, and we sin, but we receive grace. How can we say this grace dwells within us when we don’t demonstrate it to other weak, sinful people?

This article was originally published on Used with permission.

Scott Slayton serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL and writes at his personal blog One Degree to He and Beth have been married since 2003 and have four children. You can follow him on Twitter: @scottslayton.

Publication date: June 1, 2016