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Gordon Nary

October, 1996

Several weeks ago a three-year-old child was severely injured when he fell into the gorilla pit at Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. The incident made international headlines when Binta-Jua, a 160-pound gorilla, rescued the severely injured boy and carried him to the zoo attendant who had cared for Binta-Jua during her pregnancy. The boy was saved; CNN featured a videotape of the rescue. Binta-Jua is now a celebrity with thousands of people standing in lines daily to see the gorilla that some journalists described as demonstrating "human compassion."

I question the appropriateness of the phrase "human compassion," which appears to me to border on the oxymoronic. Compassion is an appropriate term since it describes a feeling or awareness of another's hardship, pain, or sorrow that moves one to help. Binta-Jua was aware of the child's injury and was moved to help the boy by carrying him to her attendant. I generally do not succumb to anthropomorphizing tendencies to ascribe human characteristics to animals or God. However, there appears to be adequate behavioral data to show the existence of compassion in some animals. Unfortunately, there is declining behavioral data to demonstrate the existence of compassion in some humans--especially those responsible for public policy.

Globally, more than 10,000 children die each day from infectious diseases that could be prevented or adequately treated. We have the drugs, the knowledge, and the money to avert most of these five-million-plus deaths a year. What we don't have is compassion. We are not moved to help those who will die without such help. It would appear that compassion in animals has the potential of saving more children's lives than compassion in humans.

In this country there are thousands of children and adults with HIV/AIDS who fall through the cracks of our healthcare system and land in something far worse than agorilla pit. They land in healthcare limbo, surrounded by compassionless government officials who refuse to provide them the drugs that may suppress HIV and the drugs that prevent and treat opportunistic infections. These officials fail to fund the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) that could save adults and children with HIV/AIDS, because to some the lives of those with HIV disease are not worth saving. These senators, congressmen, governors, and state legislators have become the nightmares of our childhood, Sendakian monsters and bogeymen whose frightening features reflect the true ugliness of politics--the absence of compassion. If we want our government officials to demonstrate compassion, we may need to elect some gorillas to public office. Maybe the planet of the apes would be more compassionate than the planet of the humans.

©1996, Medical Publications Corporation

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