The Cincinnati Zoo's decision to kill a 17-year-old critically endangered gorilla after a four-year-old boy fell into the animal's habitat has sparked a backlash from animal rights activists, anti-zoo groups, and people who accuse the boy's mother of bad parenting. It could also result in criminal charges.
The incident occurred on Saturday afternoon, when the four-year-old boy managed to breach the zoo exhibit's barrier and fell into the concrete moat surrounding "Gorilla World." A 450-pound, 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe went to the boy and, at times, seemed to be trying to protect him as onlookers screamed from above — but he also repeatedly drags the boy through the water at high speed. The Cincinnati Fire Department said in a press release on Saturday that the gorilla was "violently dragging and throwing the child."
The gorilla later climbed up a ladder with the boy to the main level of the gorilla habitat, where, about ten minutes after the boy entered the enclosure, a zookeeper fatally shot Harambe. The boy was transported to the hospital and was released that night. He is now recovering at home, his family said.
The Hamilton County prosecutor's office said on Tuesday that the incident is currently under police investigation.
"The incident at the Cincinnati Zoo involving the young child who fell into the gorilla enclosure is under investigation by the Cincinnati Police Department," Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said in a statement. "Once their investigation is concluded, they will confer with our office on possible criminal charges."
Animal welfare activists have since organized vigils for Harambe, placing flowers and cards at the entrance of the zoo and inside the zoo, at the feet of a statue near Gorilla World.
One online petition called "Justice for Harambe" now has more than 300,000 signatures and calls on child protection services and law enforcement to investigate the boy's mother for negligence.
"This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child," the petition says. "It is believed that the situation was caused by parental negligence and the zoo is not responsible for the child's injuries and possible trauma."
According to the New York Times, Cincinnati police have no plans to investigate the boy's parents.
The boy's mother, Michelle Gregg, has withstood a barrage of social media abuse. After posting a public statement on her Facebook extending her "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," the message said.
She has since deactivated her Facebook account after it was overrun by angry trolls. The online assault grew so vitriolic that a man who says his name is Kevin took it upon himself to set up a Facebook page called "I Support Michelle Gregg," which so far has attracted nearly 450 followers.
Some say the zoo is at fault for what happened. One group has lodged an official complaint with the US Department of Agriculture saying the Cincinnati Zoo is responsible for the gorilla's death by failing to provide adequate safety barriers between people and animals. In a press conference on Tuesday, a spokesperson from Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN) said that the zoo "violated several parts of the animal welfare act" by failing to construct "adequate physical barriers."
"The public needs to understand what they're supporting when they go to facilities like this" he added. "They're not designed to be in the best interests of the animals. They are designed for people to look at animals."
The non-profit watchdog group has filed a complaint with the USDA containing its alleged violations, and claim the zoo has been cited twice recently for safety and enclosure issues.
Another group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said the zoo's enclosure was not sufficient to keep animals and people separated, and that it should have had a "secondary barrier."
"This tragedy is exactly why PETA urges families to stay away from any facility that displays animals as sideshows for humans to gawk at," said primatologist Julia Gallucci, said in the statement.
In March, two Cincinnati Zoo polar bears, named "Little One" and "Berit", tried to escape from their containment area after zookeepers left a pen door open. Because of the double-security system in the polar bear exhibit, they weren't able to breach a second set of doors which would lead to the public spectator area. The zoo director assured the public in a statement that no bears or zookeepers were injured in the incident.
With the dust still refusing to settle from Saturday's incident, the Cincinnati Zoo released a second statement on Sunday explaining in more detail what exactly happened: After being notified that a boy had fallen into the moat, zookeepers immediately called the gorillas out of the exhibit.
"The two females complied, but Harambe did not," the statement said, adding that "with the child still in the exhibit, tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option. 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."
The follow-up statement didn't do enough to mollify public concern.
To counter the anger at Harambe's death, the zoo on Monday held a press conference to defend its actions.
Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard described the incident as "unprecedented" in the zoo's history. "We have never had to kill a dangerous animal in the middle of an emergency situation," Maynard told reporters. "We've been here 143 years so that's saying a lot."
Hitting back at what he described as the "Monday morning quarterbacks or second guessers" Maynard explained further why "you can't take a risk with a silverback gorilla" and why Harambe might have been alarmed by the presence of a four-year old in his enclosure.
"I've seen this animal with one hand, take a coconut and crunch it," he said. "He was disorientated. He never had anything like that going on before."
Maynard also insists that safety at the zoo is his top priority. "The exhibit is safe and the barrier is safe. That said, any of us in this room could climb over barriers if we choose."
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 last Friday with a Tweet.
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.