Why does the death of a gorilla hurt us so much?

Why does the death of a gorilla hurt us so much?
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Thirty years ago, the killing of a gorilla in a zoo would have barely been noticed except by the people closest to the animal. Today, however, the shooting of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, has elicited strong emotions and grief from individuals throughout the world. Harambe was killed to rescue a child who had slipped into his enclosure. Thankfully, the child was saved. Harambe, of course, was not. Harambe's death, though, has led to many questions about the confinement of animals in zoos and the nature of our responsibility toward them.

Harambe is the latest in a long line of animals whose lives--and sometimes deaths--have caused widespread emotional reactions. Think Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, Tilikum the orca at SeaWorld, and Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo. The lives of animals now capture our attention. Moreover, it is not only the animals we consider beautiful, majestic, or endangered who enter our thoughts. We are increasingly concerned about all animals, including chickens, pigs, mice, and even crocodiles and sharks. No matter how slimy, how scaly, how smelly, or even how scary, animals' lives now matter to us. Why?

Why do we care about other animals? Why do we care about beings whose lives are seemingly so removed from ours? These are questions that I have been trying to answer over the past twenty-five years, ever since I first added my voice to countless others who stood up against cruelty to animals. I added my voice when I was a teenager because I questioned the ethics of how we use animals as tools for experiments and toys for entertainment. But as I grew older, I started to realize that our lives are more intertwined with those of animals than we ever thought possible.

As a neurologist and public health specialist, I have spent the better part of my adult life examining how our relations with animals affect our health in very concrete ways. Measurable, quantifiable and scientific. But now, witnessing our widespread reaction to Harambe's death, I wonder if there is something more going on. Do animals affect our health in a much deeper way?

To answer this question, we have to ask ourselves "what is health?" During my medical training, I was taught that health is more than just the absence of disease. In 1946, the World Health Organization defined health as "a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being," and the best doctors, nurses and public health specialists take this definition to heart. While disease today largely represents our lives within the white walls of our medical centers, health represents our lives outside the hospital, outside the doctor's office.

To truly heal and to keep someone healthy, we doctors have to lift our gazes from our checklists of drugs, diagnoses, and medical procedures. We have to consider the numerous influences that occur beyond the white walls. We now recognize that how we interact with and treat each other, how we view each other, how we share (or do not share) our resources, how we eat, how we work, how we play, how we shelter ourselves, how we think, how we govern ourselves, how we spend money, how we relate to our environment--in short, how we live--influences our health.

As I have come to see, health is indeed a picture of every aspect of our lives and not just our lives as individuals, but also collectively. We are a social species. Our relationships with each other matter because we are inter-dependent, perhaps more so now in our global world than ever before. As we are increasingly aware of others, our empathy and compassion also increase. With each generation, we extend our circle of empathy bit by bit to include those who were previously ignored--like battered women, the mentally disabled, and the transgender community. Our ever-widening empathy reflects our growing understanding that our well-being is tied to the well-being of others. I suffer when you suffer. We suffer when they suffer. The lives and struggles of far-flung strangers affect us all.

I believe that the lives and struggles of animals affect us, too. In 1984, biologist Edward Osborne Wilson introduced the concept of biophilia in his ground-breaking book of the same name. He described biophilia as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms." Biophilia is the hypothesis that humans naturally have a deep affiliation with animals and that this affiliation is rooted in our biology. It is a love of all life in its simplest definition. It is part of who we are as fellow animals.

Wilson was not limiting our biophilia to just animals, but to all of nature. However, it is in our relationships with animals where our biophilia is strongest. Our feelings about animals have crossed a critical threshold. Even though we are hurting animals more now than ever before in human history, our empathy for animals is also at an all-time high. We are questioning our long-held beliefs about who animals are and how we should treat them.

We now react in droves to stories of animals' suffering and death with sorrow. And we react to stories of animals' rescues with joy. The story of a dog who cries after being returned to a shelter breaks our hearts. The story of dogs who see sunlight for the first time after years living in an experimental lab lifts our spirits.

We are just as emotionally connected with animals, even if we are not always aware of this, as we are with each other. We can intellectualize all the reasons why we regret Harambe's death--it could have been prevented, he was of an endangered species, he was a victim forced to live a life of captivity, and so on. But I think our collective grief about Harambe's death reflects something much simpler. When an animal is hurt (even if necessary), we are hurt.

We are beginning to recognize that we share a kinship with animals. And that means that at some level, even if subconsciously, we are also beginning to realize that the well-being of animals is tied to our own.

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