ORLANDO — Days after a horrific and fatal alligator attack on a 2-year-old boy at a Walt Disney World resort, social media condolences have flowed non-stop for the distraught parents.
The reaction was different last month when a 3-year-old crawled through a barrier, then fell into the gorilla pen at the Cincinnati Zoo. Zookeepers, deeming the situation life-threatening, shot the western lowland gorilla, Harambe, which had grabbed the child.
The incident was filmed by zoogoers, and thus began online public shaming of the child's parents and the zoo's decision to shoot Harambe. The social media hashtag #JusticeForHarambe went viral. Members of the media, parents and animal activists accused the boy's parents of neglect. A petition on change.org (started by Sheila Hurt of Cincinnati) aimed to hold the parents responsible. Within a few days, the petition had more than a half-million signatures. Ultimately, police decided no charges were warranted.
Keith Winsten, executive director of Brevard Zoo, attributed the differing reactions to a variety of factors, but most obviously the child's death after the alligator attack.
"The loss of human life, the loss of a child's life," he said. "We all feel so deeply. I can't think of a more potent loss."
Lane Graves and his parents, Matt and Melissa of Elkhorn, Neb., were vacationing at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World when the attack occurred Tuesday night in a man-made lake. Lane was playing in about a foot of water at the Seven Seas Lagoon when an alligator snatched him. On Wednesday afternoon, his body was recovered.
Officials removed and euthanized five alligators from the lake.
There has been some outrage about the killing of the alligators (one Tweet depicts a gator with a message, "I did it for Harambe") but nothing of the scale of #JusticeforHarambe.
"It's a lot easier to love a gorilla. They look like us, and we can relate to them," Winsten said. "Harambe was a known animal with a face and a name and a story. These gators are sort of faceless and nameless. If it was a 'Gus' or 'Old Bob' that was known to live off a dock, I think people would be upset about the gators."
But not everyone feels that way.
A comment by OmahaVike on Reddit states, "We neutralize an immediate threat like a gorilla, and the Sierra Club world loses their mind. But it's okay to start indiscriminately 'murdering' alligators, and nobody says a thing. The logic is mind numbing."
That triggered a response from GunzGoPew also via Reddit: "There's like 800 of that species of gorilla in the world, whereas Gators aren't endangered."
Susan Wheat of Port St. John, an animal lover of both domestic and wild critters, doesn't think it's that simple. Wheat is frequently active on Facebook, and she's seen criticism for the Harambe and gator incidents but not to the same level.
"I think part of the difference is location. In one case, the animal was confined and in clear sight. The other was a wild animal striking without warning," she said. "The one case, the child went into the gorilla cage, its safe space. The other, the gator entered the child's safe space. So unexpected to have your child taken that way. Very chilling.
"For myself, not being a parent, my heart went out to both" families, she added.
"Sometimes tragedies happen, and nobody is at fault," said Winsten. "No people did anything wrong, and no animal did anything wrong. The commonality is our desire to find somebody at fault when tragedy happens."
That's where the public shaming — aka the "Mommy Wars" — ignites on social media, where many facelessly and anonymously place blame.
"We never like to see an animal killed without purpose, in both this case and in the case of Harambe. They're unpleasant decisions we have to make every day," Winsten said, adding he stands by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's decision to euthanize the gators from the man-made lake and the Cincinnati Zoo's decision to kill Harambe to prevent it from hurting the 3-year-old boy.
"I think people are going to find fault no matter what you do," he said. "There are, unfortunately, a lot of haters out there."
Contributing: Rachael Thomas, Florida Today, and USA TODAY. Follow Jennifer Sangalang on Twitter: @byjensangalang
Basic facts about alligators
Keith Winsten, executive director of Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, offers these tips about gators.
• Never feed them. Like many creatures, they feed at dusk and dawn.
• Their vision is poor.
• On average,one person is killed by alligators every five years in Florida.
• Like all predators, they prefer something that's not going to put up a fight. Predators live in fear of getting hurt because once they get hurt, they can't hunt.
• If you're ever grabbed by something, poke it in the eye. It's true with gators, bears and sharks.
• "Gators do not eat people. Like sharks, once they realize who you are, they usually release you right away."
• A gator's diet consists of fish, turtles, mammals, rats, chickens and birds.
• Its predators are humans and other alligators.
• Its habitat? Swamps, lakes and marshes.
Source: Brevard Zoo, Florida Today research