Why we have to stop vilifying alligators and other animals

Humans have long been inclined to view animals as something "other" than us. Here's why it's time to change.

After a long bike ride this morning, I sat down to breakfast and flicked on my iPad to catch up with the news. The first headline that caught my eye included the words “boy,” “alligator” and “Disney.” While I won’t mention the media outlet that published it (one I considered reputable and regularly read), it was an extremely sensational headline. Sighing, I hesitantly tapped on the story.

Just a paragraph in, I knew we had another Harambe-type situation on our hands: Toddler toddles off away from parents into the path of a large and powerful animal. Parents freak out. Animal/s is/are blamed for endangering — or in this case, probably killing — a child. Animal/s is/are killed.

Search and rescue crews had been looking for the boy, two-year-old Lane Graves, since his parents reported an alligator took him when he waded into the Seven Seas Lagoon at the Disney Grand Floridian Resort in Orlando last night. Alligator trapping crews caught and killed a handful of alligators in the lagoon and nearby areas to “minimize risk” for other resort patrons. Rescuers found Lane’s lifeless body in the muck near where the alligator grabbed him.

Disney's Seven Seas Lagoon. Credit: Chad Sparkes (Wikimedia Commons)

Disney's Seven Seas Lagoon. Credit: Chad Sparkes (Wikimedia Commons)

Wildlife management ethics, parenting ethics, resort-going ethics aside, I found major issues with this media outlet’s story and the others I have subsequently read. As a science writer focused on wildlife and wildlife rehabber who has spent most of my life around animals, I am dismayed to see writers are still playing into the outdated idea that humans are vastly different than other animals, that “we” are sophisticated while “they” are brutish and threatening, that it’s humanity versus nature. 

In the first story I read the writer refers to the alligator as a “beast” that “snatched” a child. This sensationalist writing plays into that flawed humanity versus nature idea, and that obscures what really happened, to readers’ great disservice. 

Truth: Alligators normally prey on small animals (and sometimes large animals) who wade into shallow water. A toddler certainly fits the bill. An alligator was being an alligator looking for something to eat in the water. A child was being a child, investigating the water. Unfortunately, the two animals (and yes, humans are animals) paths crossed but the alligator is somehow evil for taking the child as its prey. I find something wrong with the fact this is so.

The idea that humans are somehow not “animals” (which defies our very biology) is a really, really old one. It’s deeply ingrained in human culture, which makes it extremely challenging to change. It dates all the way back to Plato’s “scala naturae,” or Great Chain of Being, theory — that life revolved around a religious hierarchal structure based on perceived power, intellect and status. God is at the top of the hierarchy, then angels, demons, stars, moons, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and at the bottom, non-precious minerals.

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being by Didacus Valades (Wikimedia Commons)

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being by Didacus Valades (Wikimedia Commons)

Other philosophers later expanded on Plato’s hierarchy idea. By the Middle Ages people began building whole villages inside castle walls, keeping members of the village “safe” from wildlife roaming beyond them. People began to fear wildlife and nature, writing stories about evil animals that lurked in the woods, ready to harm humans. Gothic writers played into this fear—weaving made-up monsters like werewolves and symbolically threatening real animals like black cats and ravens—into their stories’ plotlines. The appearance of these monsters or animals often foreshadowed the death of a human or humans.

In reality, wild animals don’t have it out for humans. We only think they do. As we encroach on their habitats, change or destroy their habitats and stick them in manmade “habitats,” we are putting both ourselves and animals into unnatural situations, and that’s creating dangerous situations for everyone. Yet we are surprised when these dangerous situations materialize.

Would a captive 17-year-old endangered silverback gorilla named Harambe have frantically pulled three-year-old Isiah Gregg around his clearly poorly secured exhibit if zoo-goers weren’t yelling and screaming at him to leave the boy alone? No.

Would an alligator have taken two-year-old Lane Graves as prey if Disney had prevented resort-goers from accessing the lagoon, or at least done more to educate resort-goers that alligators are a well-known part of Florida life than post a “No Swimming” sign? No.

Would Isiah have been killed if people had not stepped in and shot Harambe? No, according to ape experts like Jane Goodall

Will killing a handful of gators help prevent people from being taken or injured by gators in the future? No. 

An American alligator, like that which took Lane Graves at Disney's Seven Seas Lagoon. Credit: Gareth Rasberry (Wikimedia Commons)

An American alligator, like that which took Lane Graves at Disney's Seven Seas Lagoon. Credit: Gareth Rasberry (Wikimedia Commons)

Again, the primary point of my writing this is not to chastise the wildlife managers or parents involved in these situations, nor is to reprimand zoos or resorts—though these things may also be warranted. And before I am accused of being insensitive and unfeeling, let me acknowledge that yes, that an alligator took Lane as its prey and that Isiah was pulled around a zoo enclosure are unfortunate events. This incident in Disney is especially sad and awful because Lane has been found dead.

But I argue that these two events could have been prevented if humans could abandon the humanity versus nature mindset. Humans (especially those in the media) need to stop vilifying alligators and other animals. Sensationalist vilification of animals fosters a culture of fear and ignorance, and this ignorance—as the event at Disney illustrates—can be deadly.

People need to be aware that being outdoors in "nature" or at a zoo means there will be wild animals nearby whether you can see them or not. Signs warning about wild animals’ presence may or may not be effective in catching people’s attention, so everyone—even people who live far from rural environments—need a general education about outdoor safety, in particular, wildlife safety. In the case of the alligator at the Disney lagoon, any native Floridian can tell you, to think there is no chance of encountering wild animals at a lagoon (simply because one believes they are inside an "exclusive" resort) is foolish.

The most sound wildlife advice: Keep your distance from wild animals (or their probable location, if you cannot see them).

Yet Lane and his family were from Nebraska, the Midwest, which is not exactly alligator country. If his parents had known about alligators’ presence, perhaps they’d have been more vigilant around the lagoon. Perhaps they wouldn’t have visited the lagoon at all. Alligators are powerful and fast and should be respected, just like every other wild animal. Yet the vilification of wildlife, the notion that they are something entirely separate and removed from humanity, clouds humans’ ability to comprehend that we live alongside them. Again, humans need not be wary of wildlife, but pay due respect by educating ourselves about wild animals and must be aware of their presence in our lives so we can—together as a group of animals—all live in harmony. 

A young boy respectfully watching shorebirds from a distance on a beach in Florida. Credit: JSarasota (Wikimedia Commons)

A young boy respectfully watching shorebirds from a distance on a beach in Florida. Credit: JSarasota (Wikimedia Commons)

Human ignorance is the only thing makes wild animals dangerous to humans. We need to shift our perspectives: The alligator at Disney was just being an alligator, Lane a curious child, and this resulted in a tragic human loss of life and also the slaughter of alligators. This is similar to Harambe’s experience: A gorilla was being a gorilla and Isiah a curious child, which resulted in a child going through a traumatic experience and a gorilla being killed.

Let’s obliterate this ignorance and prevent future tragedies by respecting wildlife, learning to live with wild animals rather than ignore the fact that they exist alongside us. Because it’s not humanity versus nature: We are a part of nature. We are animals. Let’s stop acting like we’re not.