Why I won’t judge the Cincinnati zoo mom

A gorilla was shot in a Cincinnati zoo after a young boy found his way into an enclosed zoo area. Now, outraged animal rights activists blame the boy’s mother for letting him out of her sight.

I was inclined to be critical, too. Then certain memories came back at me. Like the times I “lost” my children. It happened once with my daughter, at the New England Aquarium. And once with my son, at the local zoo. Each incident happened when they were about 4.

At the aquarium, I was alone with my daughter. We were both looking at the sea creatures, or so I thought. But when I looked down, she was gone. I could feel the panic build as I walked, then raced to retrace our steps. I was heading toward the security desk, when I saw her running toward me. Now 22, she still remembers the incident and tells me she deliberately “booked it” to see what would happen.

At least I was the only witness to that moment of parental carelessness. My son disappeared briefly during a preschool class trip, which I took time off work to attend. Another mother asked if I would watch her son until she got there, and of course, I said yes. They were with the group, and then they weren’t. It was only a matter of minutes before they turned up. But during those minutes, which felt like forever, the other mother showed up and told me exactly what she thought of me.

I was mortified then, and still feel shame as I write this. What was I looking at or thinking about that was more important than the child I love more than anything?

Lucky for me, nothing bad happened. But that was fate. If something bad did happen, I would be responsible – as responsible as that woman in Cincinnati.

When a child slips from a parent’s grasp into danger like that, the parent will always feel accountable. But that alone does not add up to neglect.

Yet, in apparent response to the outrage over the killing of the gorilla, police are investigating the actions of the boy’s family, when it seems the safety of the zoo’s facilities is the real issue. According to the New York Times, the animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now said the Cincinnati Zoo was cited twice for problems with its enclosures and facilities. As far as the killing of the gorilla, while I am an animal lover and wish another option were available, the life of a child takes precedence.

On social media, some outraged respondents suggested a child should be “leashed” in settings like that. But even the most careful parent can’t protect a child from every danger. And trying to do that presents its own risks to a child’s wellbeing. I would rather raise a curious child with a sense of adventure than one who is afraid to leave my side.

My children are now adults. Growing up, they tested me and sometimes scared me. Thinking back on those times makes me less willing to judge another mother’s day at the zoo with her family.

Twitter: @Joan_Vennochi.