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When There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Choice

when there is no right or wrong choiceAll my life (to date, anyway) I have had a particular preference for flow-charting things.

For example, if A happens, then do B. But if B happens, then do C.

That sort of thing.

Doing this feels the same as opening Google Maps and mapping out my complete itinerary in advance of taking a trip.

Reassuring. Smart.

But over the years, I have learned (to my great disappointment) that this “no surprises” approach doesn’t work well in a surprising number of situations.

This appears to be because, for many less clear-cut situations, there exists no black or white “if (this), then (that)” option.

In other words, there is no one single best possible choice for each possible scenario.

There is only a series of less-best choices, in ever-decreasing amounts of best-ness.

Or there is a series of choices that are best for one choice-maker but not for the others.

These are the kinds of scenarios therapists like to call “grey areas” and I like to call “frustrating.”

I will give you an example of one such grey area I have been turning over and over in my mind since the day I learned of it. 

On Memorial Day weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo, a 4-year-old boy somehow got into the enclosure of a 400 lbs. highly endangered silverback male gorilla. The boy had previously expressed to his mother his intention to do this, and she had forbidden it.

It is not unreasonable to assume this made the boy’s goal sound even more appealing.

To make a long, painful and intensely contentious story short, in order to rescue the boy, zoo workers shot and killed the gorilla.

It didn’t take long for bystanders, the news media and total strangers to begin forming and voicing (loud) opinions on whether this was the “right” choice.

The proposed alternative after-the-fact choices included each of these:

  • Shoot the gorilla with tranquilizer darts.
  • Prosecute the parents for negligence.
  • Prosecute the zoo for negligence.
  • Let nature (in this case, a 400 lbs. gorilla that is in the process of displaying conflicting behavior signals) sort it all out, um, naturally.
  • Close all zoos.

Just like “kill the gorilla to make sure the gorilla doesn’t kill the boy,” none of these choices sound “right” to me. Some of the choices also sound more “wrong” than others.

But the ones that sound more wrong still don’t make the less-wrong choices sound right.

In fact, it would seem there are no right choices in this particular situation.

Rather, there seems to exist only a series of indisputably sucky choices combined with an ever-growing crowd of emotionally-overwrought after-the-fact backseat drivers, each of which is waving their arms, shouting, doing the air-brake with their feet, shooting the bird at other drivers out the backset windows and covering their I’m-gonna-die-soon heads with their hands, all while expressing their own not-right opinions with the tone of pronouncing facts.

Not a good scene, overall.

I waited to watch the actual video footage and read the story until one of my favorite animal activists, former Columbus Zoo manager “Jungle” Jack Hanna, weighed in.

His take? The zoo did make the absolute best choice from their particular assortment of not-right sucky decisions, especially given the rapidity and circumstances of the situation as it unfolded.

Now, Jungle Jack wasn’t on the scene either, so technically he could be considered an after-the-fact backseat driver opinion-giver as well.

But at least he has managed a zoo, conducted safety trainings for zoo personnel, participated actively in wild animal capture and interacted with large male silverback gorillas of the exact sort that was being kept at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Also, what a lot of people today probably don’t know is that he has also faced a similar type situation on a very personal level many years ago, when a small boy encountered a captive big cat on one of his early zoo-farms with not fatal but still disastrous results.

This is precisely why I was waiting to hear his weigh-in on this particular situation.

Some folks seem to think the parents are highly at fault for losing track of their 4-year-old boy. Just over a month ago, I lost track of my 2-year-old tortoise. For 6 days. We were out on the lawn together. She was right there beside me one minute and the next minute she was GONE. And let me tell you, I felt like the mud under the dirt under the heel of shoe from the moment she went missing until, well, I still kind of feel like that.

All that to say, personally, I wouldn’t vote to prosecute the parents.

Some folks seem to feel the zoo personnel are at fault for not securing the gorilla enclosure, um, securely enough. But since the boy fell 10 feet into the enclosure, I have to assume some amount of active effort (climbing, perhaps?) was involved to get inside, which for a being of any age appears to indicate actively willed personal choice.

So I wouldn’t prosecute the zoo either…..although I would consider requiring that zoo (and all zoos while we’re at it) to use the funds they would have paid out in fines (had they been prosecuted) to build a much higher climb-proof retaining wall or fence between visiting guests and animal residents.

As far as closing all zoos, well, zoos are the only reason some folks even realize there is anything special or worth saving about animals at all. In fact, zoos may be the only reason silverback gorillas are still with us and not already extinct.

Plus, such a planet-wide closure would amount to printing out and signing death warrants for some of our planet’s most endangered non-human beings.

Signing another being’s death warrant has never been on my personal bucket list, so that choice is a no for me too.

Darting the gorilla to tranquilize it? In a perfect world, with one giant fast-acting dart and a black-ops sharpshooter to deliver it straight to the gorilla (and not to the boy), I could have been on board with that one.

But when I found out the best arrangement zoos have at their disposal is a series of smaller darts aimed and shot by zoo keepers, and that these darts take 10 minutes or more to begin acting on large weighty animals like, oh, say, a gorilla (which also means the gorilla has 10 minutes to get really pissed off about being shot at with darts and do his worst until the tranqs kick in), well, I just couldn’t see that working out well for the boy or his parents or the zoo or even the gorilla, really, since once, post-darting, he started doing his worst in the boy’s direction, he would likely get the real kind of bullets anyway.

What I am learning from all of this is what zoo personnel have said from the start. In this particular situation – as with so many situations in life – all choices (including the choice to do nothing) were heavily colored in grey.

And while it is good to have time now to slo-mo replay all the events and consider what might have been done differently, the zoo staff certainly didn’t have that luxury in the precious few moments between when the boy fell in and when he was rescued. They had minutes – maybe only seconds – to decide.

I am beyond sad that Harambe is gone.

And I don’t have any idea what I would have done if somebody handed me that same situation, a dart gun, a real gun, a horde of opinionated screaming onlookers and less than 5 minutes to make up my mind.

I truly don’t know.

Today’s Takeaway: Just for the record, I still am not happy about this lack of right and wrong choices for certain situations. But my unhappiness doesn’t change this one bit. What is your take on highly controversial situations like the Cincinnati Zoo issue, where there are multiple less-right choices, some slightly less-worse and others more-worse, plus a host of uninformed opinions often made after-the-fact? What would you have done in that situation? The same? Something different?

Fernando Madeira/Bigstock

When There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Choice

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2016). When There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Choice. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Sep 2016
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