Outrage builds over shooting of rare gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo

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CINCINNATI — Shortly after zookeepers shot and killed a rare gorilla to save a boy who had entered its enclosure, many are questioning whether death was the only option.

In a statement released Sunday, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden expressed remorse over the shooting of Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowlands gorilla who was killed Saturday after toying with a four-year-old child.

“We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made,” zoo director Thane Maynard said in a statement.

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.

Neither the boy nor his family have been identified. The family had been visiting the zoo on Saturday when the boy slipped away from his parents and entered the enclosure.

In the storm of criticism in the aftermath of the shooting, some blamed the boy’s mother for failing to look after her son. Others said the zoo was too quick to take the decision to shoot Harambe.

Ian Redmond, chairman of The Gorilla Organization, said keepers 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 said.

“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.”

Dragged by the foot

Cellphone video filmed by a zoo-going member of the public, Kimberly Ann Perkins 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 said. 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 3-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 the two well-known 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.”