A holiday weekend outing at Cincinnati’s zoo turned doubly tragic Saturday when a 4-year-old boy was hospitalized after falling into a gorilla enclosure – and zoo workers had to kill the rare gorilla to protect the boy.
Cincinnati police and emergency crews responded to a report of a child falling into the exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden at about 4 p.m. Saturday.
Police confirmed the child was taken to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center near the zoo, and was treated for serious injuries that were not considered to be life-threatening.
Cincinnati Zoo President Thane Maynard said the boy crawled through a barrier and fell an estimated 10 to 12 feet into the moat surrounding the habitat. He said the boy was not seriously injured by the fall.
The Cincinnati Fire Department reported in a press release that first responders “witnessed a gorilla who was violently dragging and throwing the child.”
Maynard said the zoo’s 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla, Harambe, grabbed the boy and dragged him around. Two female gorillas were also in the enclosure.
The boy was with the 400-pound animal for about 10 minutes before the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team deemed the situation “life-threatening,” Maynard said.
“The choice was made to put down, or shoot, Harambe, so he’s gone,” Maynard said. “We’ve never had a situation like this at the Cincinnati Zoo where a dangerous animal needed to be dispatched in an emergency situation.”
The fire department release said the boy was in between the gorilla’s legs at the time of the shot.
Maynard said the Dangerous Animal Response Team followed procedures, which they practice in drills. He said in the 38-year history of the zoo’s gorilla exhibit that they’ve never had anyone get into the enclosure.
After the gorilla was shot, zoo employees unlocked the gate and two firefighters quickly retrieved the child, according to the fire department.
“It’s a sad day all the way around,” Maynard said. “They made a tough choice. They made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life. It could have been very bad.”
Brittany Nicely of Dayton was visiting the zoo with her two children and four other children on Saturday. They were at Gorilla World when the incident took place.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little boy in the bushes past the little fence area. I tried to grab for him. I started yelling at him to come back,” Nicely said.
“Everybody started screaming and going crazy,” she said. “It happened so fast.”
Nicely said the gorilla rushed toward the boy and led him by the arm through the water in the enclosure. She said initially the gorilla seemed protective and only alarmed by all the screaming.
The area was then evacuated by zoo staff. Nicely stood with her group outside the exhibit.
“About four or five minutes later we heard the gunshot,” she said. “We were pretty distraught. All the kids were crying.”
Nicely said she spent the whole trip home explaining why they are told to stay close and not run at the zoo.
“That could have been them,” she said. “Something like that could have happened. It’s a very traumatizing experience for anybody involved. The kids, the zookeepers, the other gorillas that now don’t have him there any more.”
News of the incident triggered huge social media response. A video posted by the Enquirer had been viewed about 71,000 times at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
Many commenters criticized the parents of the boy for not watching him more closely. A Facebook group called Justice for Harambe was created and gathered more than 100 “likes” in less than two hours.
“This page was created to raise awareness of Harambe’s murder on 5/28/16,” the page states. “We wish to see charges brought against those responsible!”
Lt. Steve Saunders, the spokesman for the Cincinnati Police Department, said no charges were being pursued against the child’s parents.
The decision to shoot Harambe instead of tranquilizing was made in the interest of the boy’s safety, Maynard said.
“In an agitated situation, it may take quite a while for the tranquilizer to take effect,” he explained, “At the instant he would be hit, he would have a dramatic response. You don’t hit him and he falls over.”
Maynard also explained that while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.
— Cincinnati Zoo (@CincinnatiZoo) May 27, 2016
“All sort of things could have happened in a situation like that. He certainly was at risk,” Maynard said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and little boy.”
He said that zoo officials have not yet spoken with the family of the child who fell into the habitat. Zoo officials will be reviewing the security of the enclosure and their procedures, but said they have no plans to stop the gorilla program.
Harambe was born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas before he was moved to Cincinnati in September 2014. Another gorilla, Gladys, named for her home zoo, also come to Cincinnati from Brownville.
Western lowland gorillas are one of the four gorilla subspecies. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, populations of the critically endangered animal are hard to estimate due to the dense, remote rainforests where they make their home, but experts say between 175,000 to 225,000 could live in mostly in Congo, but also in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.
In 2009, the International Species Information System counted 158 male western lowland gorillas and 183 females in captivity in the United States.
“Harambe was good guy. He was a youngest who started to grow up. There were hopes to breed him,” Maynard said. “It will be a loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas.”
The zoo is open Sunday, but Gorilla World will remain closed until further notice.