A western lowland male gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo was killed by keepers on Saturday after he dragged around a four-year-old boy who fell into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said.
The boy crawled through a barrier and fell about 12 feet into a moat surrounding the habitat, where Harambe, a 400-pound western lowland gorilla, grabbed him, Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard told reporters.
The Cincinnati Fire Department reported in a press release that first responders "witnessed a gorilla who was violently dragging and throwing the child."
The boy was with the 17-year-old gorilla for about 10 minutes and the zoo's dangerous animal response team deemed the situation life-threatening, he said.
The gorilla had the boy trapped between his legs when he was shot, according to the fire department release. Maynard noted that in the almost four decades of the zoo's gorilla exhibit history, they've never had anybody fall into the enclosure with the animals.
"The choice was made to put down, or shoot, Harambe, so he's gone," he said. "The child was not under attack but all sorts of things could happen. He certainly was at risk."
Two female gorillas were also in the enclosure at the time of the incident, but were called out by zoo staff. Harambe, on the other hand, approached the child and grabbed him — at one point he seemed to be protecting the boy from the screaming onlookers, but seconds later he dragged the four-year-old violently through the water.
Maynard said zoo officials considered shooting Harambe with a tranquilizer, but the drug does not take effect instantly, meaning the gorilla could have reacted violently to the shot.
"You don't hit him and he falls over," Thane said. "It takes a few minutes."
Maynard said the boy, who was not identified, was not seriously injured in the fall. In a statement, the zoo said the boy was alert when taken to a hospital.
Harambe was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, and was moved to the Cincinnati Zoo in 2014. Western lowland gorillas are classified as a critically endangered species, and Maynard said the zoo had hoped to use Harambe for breeding. Animal conservation groups estimate that there are only around 125,000 left in the wild in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Animal lovers and rights activists have since taken to twitter to express their anger at the killing of Harambe — many of them blame poor security around the exhibit and some accused the boys parents of not watching him closely enough.
The loss of Harambe will likely affect the other gorillas in his group. Western Lowland gorillas live in the smallest family structure of any gorilla group — normally four to eight animals. They are very intelligent — according to the National Geographic, some in captivity have even learned simple human sign language.
The Cincinnati Zoo celebrated Harambe's 17th birthday on Friday with a Tweet.
Follow VICE News on Twitter: @vicenews