CINCINNATI, Ohio — Zookeepers shot and killed a rare gorilla after a four-year-old boy slipped into its enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, triggering an outcry over how the situation was handled.
Footage shot by a witness shows Harambe, the 17-year-old male gorilla, standing near the boy, who went under a rail, through wires and over a moat wall to get into the enclosure, according to the zoo. The footage later shows Harambe dragging the child through the water as the clamor of the crowd grows louder and increasingly panicked.
Zookeepers then shot the 450-pound western lowland gorilla with a rifle, rather than tranquilizing him.
“Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes, and the child was in imminent danger. On top of that, the impact from the dart could agitate the animal and cause the situation to get much worse,” Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, said in a statement released Sunday.
“We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made.”
A vigil for Harambe was planned for Monday.
The boy, who has not been identified, was taken to Children’s Hospital and released later Saturday evening. The family is not granting interviews at this time, but released the following statement through a public relations firm:
“We are so thankful to the Lord that our child is safe. He is home and doing just fine. We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff. We know that this was a very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla. We hope that you will respect our privacy at this time.”
However, the boy’s brief encounter with the gorilla set off an uproar on the Internet. The zookeeper’s decision to shoot Harambe has been called into question over whether death was the only option.
Questions over lethal shot
Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, numbering fewer than 175,000, according to the zoo. An additional 765 gorillas dwell in zoos worldwide.
The family had been visiting the zoo on Saturday when the boy slipped away and entered the enclosure. Some are blaming the boy’s mother for failing to look after her son.
Kimberley Ann Perkins O’Connor, who captured part of the incident on her phone, told CNN she overheard the boy joking to his mother about going into the water.
Others have even suggested the boy’s parents should be held criminally responsible for the incident. An online petition seeking “Justice for Harambe” has earned more than 100,000 signatures. The petition states: “This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy’s parents did not keep a closer watch on the child.”
In response to questions on whether charges might be brought against the boy’s parents, Lieutenant Stephen Saunders, the public information officer for Cincinnati Police says he is “not aware of any intention to charge the mother” or “the parents” at this time.
Saunders says county prosecutors will be involved in making a decision about possible charges.
Others said the zoo was too quick to take the decision to shoot Harambe. Ian Redmond, chairman of The Gorilla Organization, said zookeepers had other options besides a fatal shot.
“When gorilla or other apes have things they shouldn’t have, keepers will negotiate with them, bring food, their favorite treats, pineapple or some kind of fruit that they don’t know and negotiate with them,” he told CNN.
“I don’t know if that was tried or people thought there was too much danger but it does seem very unfortunate that a lethal shot was required,” he said.
Animal expert Jeff Corwin told CNN that tranquilizers may have taken too long.
“It can take, in some situations, depending on what the medication is, it can take upward to 10 to 15 minutes. It may take multiple shots.”
Many reiterated that a human life was at stake — especially that of a child — and that’s more important than that of a gorilla.
Dragged by the foot
Cellphone video filmed by a zoo-going member of the public, O’Connor, showed the terrifying events unfold as the child’s mother could be heard saying, “Mommy’s right here.”
At first, it looked like Harambe was trying to help the boy, O’Connor told CNN. The gorilla stood him up and pulled up his pants.
However, as the crowd’s clamors grew, Harambe tossed the boy into a corner of the moat before standing over him, O’Connor said.
The crowd’s cries appeared to agitate Harambe anew, O’Connor said, and the video shows him grabbing the boy by the foot. He dragged him through the water and out of the moat atop the habitat, O’Connor said.
Moments later, Harambe was shot and put down.
Similar incidents, different endings
Although it was the first incident of its kind at Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit since it opened in 1978, similar dramatic cases have occurred — but with very different outcomes.
In 1986, a five-year-old boy named Levan Merritt tumbled into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo in the UK. Video filmed by a bystander showed Levan lying on the ground, bleeding from the head and unconscious.
In the footage Jambo, a male gorilla, is seen approaching the boy and appears to check on him, extending a hand to stroke his back. When Merritt comes to, wailing, Jambo, seemingly startled by the cries, sets off in a different direction. Zookeepers immediately move in to save the boy.
A decade later, a three-year-old boy fell nearly 20 feet into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.
This time, a female gorilla named Binti Jua picked up the unconscious boy, while carrying her own infant on her back, and guarded him from other gorillas.
In an incredible show of maternal care, Binti took him right to a door so that zookeepers could retrieve him.
PETA: Captivity not acceptable
Although gorillas are known to be unpredictable — not always the gentle giants the world saw in these two cases — the animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it’s the larger concept of zoos existing at all that is the root of the problem.
The animal rights organization said on Twitter the tragic episode was the latest proof that “even under the ‘best’ circumstances… captivity is never acceptable for gorillas or other primates.”
And others pointed out that in the end, the odds were stacked against the gorilla.