As the details of [Harambe's] story gathered in the press, he was often depicted in a stylish wire-service shot, crouched with an arm over his right knee, brooding at the camera like Sean Connery in his virile years. “This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy’s parents did not keep a closer watch on the child,” a petition calling for a criminal investigation said. It received half a million signatures—several hundred thousand more, CNN noted, than a petition calling for the indictment of Tamir Rice’s shooters. People projected thoughts into Harambe’s mind. “Our tendency is to see our actions through human lenses,” a neuroscientist named Kurt Gray told the network as the frenzy peaked. “We can’t imagine what it’s like to actually be a gorilla. We can only imagine what it’s like to be us being a gorilla.”
This simple fact is responsible for centuries of ethical dispute. One Harambe activist might believe that killing a gorilla as a safeguard against losing human life is unjust due to our cognitive similarity: the way gorillas think is a lot like the way we think, so they merit a similar moral standing. Another might believe that gorillas get their standing from a cognitive dissimilarity: because of our advanced powers of reason, we are called to rise above the cat-eat-mouse game, to be special protectors of animals, from chickens to chimpanzees. (Both views also support untroubled omnivorism: we kill animals because we are but animals, or because our exceptionalism means that human interests win.) These beliefs, obviously opposed, mark our uncertainty about whether we’re rightful peers or masters among other entities with brains. “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human,” the anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote. In confronting similarity and difference, we are forced to set the limits of our species’ moral reach.