Animal experts defend zoo’s decision to fatally shoot rare gorilla

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CINCINNATI — Two well-known animal experts are defending the Cincinnati Zoo for its actions after a 4-year-old boy slipped into the enclosure of a rare gorilla Saturday.

The boy went under a rail, through wires and over a moat wall to get into the enclosure, zoo officials said. Footage shot by a witness shows the 17-year-old silverback Harambe dragging the child through the water as the clamor of the crowd grew louder.

Zookeepers shot the 450-pound gorilla with a rifle instead of tranquilizing him. The brief encounter sparked widespread internet outrage over the decision to shoot Harambe and whether the child’s parents were to blame for failing to look after him.

But those second-guessing the call “don’t understand silverback gorillas,” Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said. And they were not there when it was time to make the crucial decision.

“That child’s life was in danger. People who question that don’t understand you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla — this is a dangerous animal,” he said. “Looking back, we’d make the same decision. The child is safe.”

Jack Hanna, the director of the Columbus Zoo, said it was the right call to kill the gorilla. The host of “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild” told WBNS-TV that he saw video of the gorilla jerking the boy through a shallow moat in the exhibit.

Hanna said the boy would have died if the gorilla wasn’t killed.

“It was the right decision made,” Hanna said. “There was no other decision to make. You have human life, you have animal life. No one loves humans and animals more than the Hanna family or the zoo world. And they made the right decision.”

Animal expert Jeff Corwin also agreed, saying tranquilizers might have taken too long.

"In some situations, depending on what the medication is, it can take upward to 10 to 15 minutes," Corwin told Fox 25. "It may take multiple shots."

Many pointed out that a human life was at stake -- especially that of a child -- and that's more important than that of a gorilla.

“Zoos aren’t your babysitter,” he said. “Take a break from the cellphone, the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time for this kid, this little boy to find himself in that situation. Ultimately, it’s the gorilla that’s paid this price.”

'We made a difficult call'

The unidentified boy was taken to Children's Hospital and released Saturday night. The family thanked the zoo in a 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," the statement read.

Some suggested the boy's parents should be held criminally responsible for the incident. An online petition seeking "Justice for Harambe" earned more than 100,000 signatures in less than 48 hours.

Cincinnati Police Lt. Stephen Saunders said he is "not aware of any intention to charge the mother" or "the parents" at this time.

Maynard refused to point fingers at the child's family.

"We had a very difficult situation and we made a difficult call at the end. I'm not here to point fingers about fault," he said. "We live in the real world, we make real decisions. People and kids can climb over barriers. We work hard to make sure this zoo is safe. People can climb over barriers, that's what happened."

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