The Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed a western lowland gorilla on Saturday after a 4-year-old boy slipped into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said at a news conference.
Harambe, a 17-year-old, 400-pound gorilla, carried the boy around its habitat for about 10 minutes in what the zoo's dangerous animal response team considered a life-threatening situation, Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said at a press briefing.
After the gorilla was shot with a rifle, the child was taken to Cincinnati Children's Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, CNN affiliate WKRC reported.
Maynard said it appeared the boy went under the rail, through wires and over the moat wall.
Two female gorillas were called out of the habitat, Thane said, but the male gorilla went to the moat, picked up the child and began dragging him around the enclosure.
"The child was not under attack but all sorts of things could happen," Thane said. "He certainly was at risk."
Thane said zoo officials decided against shooting Harambe with a tranquilizer because the drug takes effect too slowly.
"You don't hit him and he falls over," Thane said. "It takes a few minutes."
Thane said the zoo security team's quick response saved the boy's life but all the zoo employees are devastated at losing a rare species.
The western lowland gorilla is a critically endangered species, according to the World Wildlife Fund's webpage. In the wild, they can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea.
Harambe, whose birthday was Friday, was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, Thane said. The zoo hoped he would eventually father other gorillas.
Critics blame parents, Cincinnati Zoo for gorilla's death
Devastated, heartbroken and in mourning are some of the words the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden used in a contrite explanation for the death of Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla killed on Saturday to save a boy who slipped into the zoo's habitat.
The boy, 4, was released unhurt from a Cincinnati hospital Saturday and the zoo opened on Sunday. Gorilla World, home to nine western lowland gorillas, was closed.
The boy was in "imminent danger," leaving the zoo's Dangerous Animal Response Team with no option but to shoot the gorilla, zoo director Thane Maynard said in a statement on Facebook. Tranquilizers may not have taken effect in time to save the boy while the dart might have agitated the animal, worsening the situation, Maynard said.
"We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child's life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made," he said.
But the words did little to assuage an angry chorus of critics who believed the gorilla's death was unnecessary. Many blamed the boy's mother for failing to maintain control of her son while others criticized the zoo for responding with what they felt was excessive force.
Some even suggested the boy's parents should be held criminally responsible for the incident. An online petition seeking "justice for Harambe" through criminal charges earned more than 8,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Neither the boy nor his family have been identified.
"In mourning? You all killed him for protecting a child [whose] parents couldn't contain their own children!!" said one commenter on the zoo's Facebook page, echoing more strongly worded sentiments.
In a statement, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the tragic episode was the latest proof that "captivity is never acceptable for gorillas or other primates."
The zoo said this is the first time Gorilla World has experienced a breach since the exhibit opened in 1978. The exhibit is inspected regularly by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the United States Department of Agriculture, and adheres to safety guidelines, according to the zoo.
The boy apparently slipped through a fence and fell some 15 feet to a shallow pool in Harambe's enclosure. Video shot by another zoo visitor showed Harambe dragging the boy like a rag doll through the water from one end of the habitat to another.
Zoo staff and the Cincinnati Fire Department were the first responders on the scene, the zoo said. According to a CFD incident report, the gorilla was violently dragging and throwing the child, leading the zoo's emergency responders to decide to put the gorilla down "to save the child," the zoo said in its statement.
The response team includes full-time keepers, veterinarians, maintenance workers, zoo leadership and security staff. All members are trained and certified annually by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
The zoo has its share of supporters, too, who weighed in on Facebook acknowledging the difficulty of its decision.
"I know that was a tough decision for the zoo to make," one commenter said. "Now if that child was killed because they (the zoo) didn't do anything then everyone would be up in arms."