Jun 022016


It is very, very sad that Harambe the gorilla was killed.  And even more sad that his death was so clearly not his fault, and so seemingly avoidable and senseless. Anyone who cares about animals will certainly have a strong emotional response to this event. And that is absolutely appropriate, but once you are done crying, railing, and ranting, stop for a few minutes to actually think about a few truths:

  1. Every parent in the history of the world has occasionally been distracted and lost track of their child. During those moments, luck is the only thing keeping those children from being abducted, walking into traffic, falling down stairs.  Of course parental vigilance is vital, but it also is not, and never shall be, perfect. I do not know how negligent this mother was or was not, and am neither defending nor condemning her behavior.  But pretending that parents should never be distracted for a moment is counterproductive and dishonest.
  2. Zoos are extraordinarily safe places for attendees: billions of children have gone to the zoo, and the statistics are overwhelming—they are about as safe as it is possible for a place to be.  The few injuries that do occur are mostly from falling down, aspirating food, or being stung by a bee. The car ride to the zoo is staggeringly more dangerous than the zoo.
  3. Zoos are extraordinarily safe places for animals: gorillas in captivity live an average of twice as long as those in the wild, and are far, far less likely to experience injury, trauma, or accidental death. They have better medical care, ample food, and very few threats.
  4. Whether Harambe intended to harm the child or not, zoo officials had to make a quick decision about how best to protect the child from very real possible harm. These are people who likely knew and loved Harambe, and wanted nothing more than to protect him, but had to make an impossibly difficult decision in a few moments. Had they not fired and the child been killed would they have been more right?

When bad things happen, humans want to blame someone, find an explanation, make some change so they feel less impotent, and in our emotional desperation to make sure it never happens again we make many poor decisions that cannot and will not create a world without risk, but absolutely will create a world full of anger and blame and draconian, micro-managing rules. Having freedom, adventure, and virtually any experiences, means accepting that there is a small chance catastrophe will strike. Individual catastrophe, no matter how sad and devastating the incident may be, does not fundamentally alter the risk/reward equation.

Certainly, there is lots for those involved to thoughtfully review—are there ways to improve fencing or barriers to even further reduce the risk of anyone getting into enclosures, how can we increase parental vigilance, what are the best protocols and practices if a person ends up in an animal enclosure?

What we must not do is let a single event occlude the larger statistical picture.  We must not eschew, condemn, or ban every activity that has any miniscule risk. We can make informed, caring, good decisions only so long as we remain rational, calm, open, and mindful.

 June 2, 2016  Posted by at 7:56 pm Tagged with: , , , ,
Jan 042009

You have entered into a very exciting moral contract with a dog.  It will be a rewarding adventure full of joy and learning, and in all likelihood you will get far more than you give. But it is also a serious lifelong commitment to caring for another being. While that commitment has many components, one of the first questions you need to consider is safety: how will you at all times keep your pet safe while providing him with a rich and full life.


People imagine that animals are like Disney characters, but they are not–your pet does not know about our laws or technology or the consequences of his actions. He does not know that we think killing cats or sheep is wrong or that using teeth to communicate is unacceptable. He does not know that ethylene glycol is toxic, or chocolate or raisins or xylitol or… He does not know that if he eats a sock he will impact. He does not know that people intruding on his territory need to be tolerated most of the time. He cannot make good decisions on his own.  He will get into trouble in every way you can imagine and in many ways that you cannot.  He has instincts and fears that can override almost any training, and in the wrong situation he will bite someone. It is your job to keep him safe even when unexpected events occur, and even when his actions work against you.  Remember that other people will do things that make little sense—they will stick their hands into your car to pet your barking dog, they will let their kids run up and jump on your dog, they will trespass. They will steal your dog or poison him. They will set him free for his own good. Think of it like defensive driving—assume there are evil crazy people out there trying to get your dog to bite them. And assume that if he ever injures someone he will be blamed no matter how absurd their actions were.  I am not being cynical, and none of this may occur in your life, but you need to be prepared for any of these occurrences.


Any time you go anywhere, survey the area for potential hazards—wild animals, people, horses, cars, trains, broken glass, rattlesnakes, mushrooms, foxtails, fire, birds, yellow-jackets, whatever.  Then be unwaveringly vigilant for approaching distractions or hazards. Learn to keep one eye on your animal at all times and one ear out for hazards.  Expect the unexpected—assume that at any moment a loud noise could frighten your animal, or a rabbit could run across his path, or another dog could come running up to play or fight.  Imagine anything that could happen and have a plan!


Anytime he is unattended at home be sure his environment is safe.  Again, anticipate the unexpected.  Can he open a window and jump out, can he get to and eat anything, is there any chance of someone entering the house when you are not there. Does he have a collar on that could get caught on something? If you cannot make the environment safe at a particular moment, use a crate or a secure enclosure.  Look carefully at every fence, gate, door, window, etc. for any potential for egress. Never rely on other people to close gates or respect unlocked doors. Imagine anything that could happen and have a plan.


This may sound impossible—people are not perfect, and sooner or later you will miss something, and disaster will strike. And it may sound onerous.  But in truth it is possible and relatively painless—it simply requires that you practice processes and habits of vigilance, and it soon becomes second nature and unconscious—good parents do it regularly, as do pilots and surgeons and drivers and…


Even as years go by and you come to trust your dog deeply, never allow yourself to become complacent.  The most common words after a dog related tragedy are almost certainly, “He never did that before…” You always need to anticipate what could happen next which may never have happened before. Habitual vigilance takes very little effort, so cultivate the habit and keep your dog safe.


You may notice that I advise vigilance not avoidance.  This is a very important distinction because almost as often as people fail to keep their dogs safe they overprotect them into illness and boredom or simply make themselves and their pet miserable.   You cannot avoid all risk for your pet—his life should be fun and rich and rewarding, and almost everything you do will introduced an element of risk—going for a drive, playing with other animals, running in the woods, chewing on a stick, eating raw food, everything fun is also somewhat dangerous.  And you should not live in fear or avoid doing fun things with your animal.  You should simply be aware—always be mindful and make the choices consciously.  Decide, with full awareness, which rewards are worth the attendant risks, and never endanger your dog carelessly or take his safety for granted.

 January 4, 2009  Posted by at 3:51 am Tagged with: , , ,