I glanced at the headlines. Cincinnati Zoo jumped out. A resident of Cincinnati for the past 18 years, I’ve brought my kids to this beautiful, progressive zoo many times, enjoying the natural exhibits, the well-kept gardens and habitats, the ecological approach. Tucked in the middle of an urban space, it’s a relatively compact and well-designed zoo—one of our city’s jewels.

If not for that personal hook, I might have overlooked this story. I never would have imagined the passions and outrage it would provoke. In the last few days, I’ve seen that frightening image of Harambe the silverback gorilla dragging the mischievous 4-year-oldboy who somehow made his way into the lair, seen it plastered all over the place and followed the ensuing debate a bit. Was the zoo right to shoot and kill Harambe?

Clearer heads and pundits all agree. Animal experts and philosophers: The child’s life was in danger. Tranquilizers would not have worked. Having to make a real-life, difficult, split-second decision, the zoo acted responsibly and correctly.

I felt for Thane Maynard, the zoo director, haggard but poised at a press conference the next day. I know his friendly voice from “The 90-Second Naturalist,” a short radio spot in which he enlightens us Cincinnatians with fascinating facts about Hashem’s creatures. Our day school’s end-of-the-year zoo trip went on as planned several days later. A mother posted: “The kids had a good time, but there was an atmosphere of sadness.” I drove past the zoo for a nearby appointment and wanted to give it a hug.

I’m not going to explore the question of parental responsibility, but I can’t resist a quick aside: As every parent knows all too well, children are impulsive and quick-escape artists, and the best-laid plans do go awry. As I typed (and spell-checked) the word “mischievous,” an image of the literary character “Curious George” flashed in my mind. George is universally loved and enduring because children are indeed curious and experimental. And some certain spirited children just HAVE to see what’s behind that closed door, or over that fence, or in that gorilla moat. For some kids, the word “No” is an evocative invitation, not a barrier.

Back to the debate. The animal-rights activists picketing for Harambe’s rights. Others scorning them at equating an animal’s life, even that of a primate, with a human life. At first, I brushed the protesters off as mishugenas—an expressive Yiddish word for “crazies.” And I bemoaned a society where that can even be a legitimate question. But as I mulled it over, I realized, it is an important question and not necessarily that self-explanatory. Most people intuitively sense that a human life takes priority over an animal’s. But this incident begs us to look deeper, to re-examine that assumed principle. Is that true? And, if so, why? Who says?

A Longing to Reconnect

In the 1950s and ’60s, the governing philosophy in Western society was man versus nature. We built cities, plowed down forests, dumped waste in rivers and lakes with impunity—all in the name of progress. I remember when Lake Erie was literally thick brown sludge. Nature was a vast treasure mine, waiting passively for us to grab and exploit it for pleasure and profit.

Religion, too, for the average American, seemed to echo this mechanistic model. You went to your house of worship once a week, sat quietly, dutifully mouthed the right words and then ran back home, jumped into your regular clothes and did whatever you wanted for the next six days.

The counterculture revolution was a gut-felt intuitive rejection of this neatly boxed mechanistic life: back to earth, Mother Nature, ying-yang. It served as an explosion of the need and longing to reconnect; to find harmony; of passionate interest in Native American, pagan and Eastern ways of thinking and being; of treading more lightly and respectfully on our planet.

Hiking, canoeing, spending quiet time out in nature—far from the shopping malls—was my gate to awakened spirituality, to feeling a Divine energy and unity pervading creation. I, too, dove into the New Age pantheon, wanting to find ways to live in harmony with this splendid feast of pulsating life. Working on an organic farm, exploring different Eastern and Christian mystical approaches, being involved in the first recycling movement in my town and, as a bona-fide tree hugger, embracing and enjoying many trees. I tried to find my place in it all.

As a general sense of spirituality grows, we sense the G‑dly energy in every leaf and creature. So how do we find the balance; how do we prioritize? It can be a confusing and troubling issue. Why does an innocent gorilla—far from its native land, living in a zoo, as benign as its keepers can make it—have to die because some humanoid kid wandered into HIS domain?

And, of course, many vital and timely questions stem from this, including using animals for life-saving experiments, and for medicine and food; how to treat captive animals; balancing human and animal needs—the list goes on.

Relative feel-good or knee-jerk thinking spawns more confusion. Looking at the objective, transcending societal whims and particulars, the source, the Torah can be instructive.

In Genesis, where it all began, Hashem makes the bountiful creation, day by day, layer upon layer of the ecosystem. Mankind is last, on the sixth day. Why? Because of our importance—so we should enter upon a set stage. But also because of our preponderance for error and folly. If we become arrogant, we need only remember that the lowly gnat was created before us, teaches the Midrash.

From the beginning, Adam had a unique role as a co-creator. Hashem brought each species to Adam, to see what he would call it. Adam had the spiritual sensitivity and insight to be able to perceive each creature’s essence and name it accordingly. The Shaloh says the act of naming illuminated each spiritual source within its body.

Each level of creation was made en masse, as a species. The Native Americans are correct in that every creature has a sentient soul. The Torah fully acknowledges this, as the Alter Rebbe explains. Yes, animals and plants do have a soul, but they were created as a harmonious unit, body and soul together simultaneously. But he goes on to differentiate, to point out the difference in the human condition. Only Adam and Eve (Chava) were created as singular individuals. And only Adam was created as a lifeless body, into which later, “G‑d infused a ‘soul of life.’ The soul of man is simply so high in comparison to the body that it could not reasonably be formed as a single unit. Rather, a separate act of G‑d was required to achieve the astounding union between them.” (The Five Books of Moses, Slager Edition, p. 15)

Guardians of the World

So how are we to interact with our co-inhabitants of this planet?

G‑d tells Adam to enter the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and guard it.” In other words, He wants man to protect, to enhance, to care—not to dominate and exploit. And to do so with responsibility and sensitivity, as a watchman over a precious treasure. Nevertheless, the human is the caretaker, and does have a primacy over the other cherished creatures.

There is much more that can be said about the role of humans, our unique free choice, and our ability to transcend our inborn nature, as well as the capacity to degrade and destroy in a manner no innocent animal could or would. But that is the subject of volumes of discussion and debate, libraries of rich text, well beyond this little essay.

For me, encountering and at least skimming the first few layers of Torah have been radically life-enhancing, giving me tremendous inspiration and celestial spirituality, along with very important grounding and clarity that this spacey tree-hugger and spiritual high-seeker would be hard-pressed to ever figure out—a clarity and ability to evaluate and prioritize that this Harambe saga cries out for.

Defining and clarifying: kosher and not-kosher; mineral, vegetable, animal and human.

In space: Holy of holies, temple courtyard, Jerusalem, the Land of Israel, outside the land.

In time: Shabbat and days of the week.

Life is all G‑dly, all precious, but it’s not one amorphous mixture. There are gradations and divisions. There is an order of priority. And higher doesn’t mean better in the simple sense, it means more responsibility.

We cherish all life. The Torah has a whole code of laws about how we must treat animals and allieviate their suffering. A touching story from the Previous Rebbe’s childhood illustrates how we must use Hashem’s creation carefully, consciously, respectfully. He was walking with his father, the Rebbe Rashab, deep in discussion. As they continued on their way, the young man absent mindedly tore a leaf off a tree and ripped it up. His father stopped and scolded him for wantonly destroying part of Hashem’s creation.

To drive home the point: We humans only can “rule” as long as we act like the resplendent, responsible, G‑dly co-creators we can and should be. Otherwise, the HaYom Yom teaches, even the stones will cry out: “What gives you the right to walk on me?”

Yes, a human child comes before a marvelous gorilla. And yes, Harambe’s killing is a significant loss. And yes, we are challenged to accept our mission to be light-makers and guard Hashem’s paradise, and be worthy of the exalted status and opportunity He is waiting for us to fulfill. To make the world into a true garden, spiritually, morally and ecologically; to make it even more beautiful than the somewhat contrived idyllic beauty of the Cincinnati Zoo—where all creatures will live in true harmony.