In response to the shooting death of a silverback gorilla who dragged a small child around an enclosure over the weekend, a Cincinnati Zoo official said the barrier guarding the gorilla enclosure was safe.
“People, kids and others can climb over barriers,” director Thayne Maynard said during a press conference aired live on CNN. “We work really hard to make sure our guests are safe. That said, people can climb over barriers.”
The 4-year-old child was reportedly visiting with a group when he climbed over a 3-foot-high steel fence and dropped into a moat where the 400-pound lowland gorilla named Harambe took an interest.
Video taken by a visitor shows two minutes of the dramatic encounter. The full episode lasted 10-minute with the great ape dragging the boy violently through the water at one instant and then in another seems to be protecting the boy like his own child.
“Mommy loves you,” a voice is heard saying. “Mommy’s right here. Be calm.”
“Someone call 911,” another is heard.
Judging the boy’s life to be in danger, a zoo response team quickly made the decision to kill the gorilla with a single rifle shot rather than risk the dangers of a tranquilizing shot.
“Almost everybody knows if you were to dart your household pet or yourself it would be a pretty dramatic response and you could have a misplaced aggression,” Maynard said. “In the real world you make difficult calls and you have to make them and the safety of that child was paramount.”
At the press conference, Maynard defended the zoo’s actions, although heart broken by the events. Though questions remain as to who exactly should be held accountable as Maynard seemed to chalk the incident up to an honest accident.
The barriers, while certified and inspected by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums every five years and the United States Department of Agriculture every two years, they are apparently not toddler proof.
Similar barriers may exist at the zoo’s other dangerous animal enclosures and could likely exist at zoos around the country. The ones at the Cincinnati Zoo are apparently the same as they have been for 30 years.
“The trouble with barriers is whatever the barrier is someone can get past them,” Maynard said.
Well that might not be good enough for the millions of parents in America who take their kids to zoos each year. At the Cincinnati Zoo, more than half of its 1.6 million visitors are children.
As news spread of the incident, animal welfare groups were already criticizing their actions and a Change.org petition calls for the prosecution of the boy’s parents.
“We did not take his shooting lightly, but that child’s life was in danger,” Maynard said. “People who question that don’t understand that you can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla.”
Six times stronger than a man, Harambe was known as a smart gorilla who was well behaved among his trainer. He could also crush a coconut with his bare hands, which made the situation especially unpredictable and urgent.
“He was clearly disoriented and never had anything like that going on before,” Maynard told reporters.
He said it was in the preceding eight minutes after the video footage cuts that the gorilla dragged the boy onto land where he continued to threaten the child. Maynard explained the reasoning behind choosing not to tranquilize him.
In response to the incident, he said the zoo had received condolences and understanding from gorilla experts such as Jane Goodall.
How a gorilla will behave when encountering a person in their enclosure varies. In some situations, they have protected people, even carrying a person to medical crews in one cases. In others, they have become violent.