Zoo defends killing of gorilla

harambe2 (1)The Cincinatti Zoo’s decision to kill an endangered western lowland gorilla on Saturday to save a 4-year-old boy who climbed into the gorilla’s enclosure has evoked public outrage and condemnations from animal welfare groups, but the zoo is defending its actions with support from some well-known animal experts and Cincinnati police said no criminal charges will be filed.

The boy was taken to a hospital, with injuries initially reported to the media as “serious,” but he was home with his family by the end of the day. A family spokesman said Sunday the family will make no public statement. Earlier his mother said she was occupied with trying to manage several other children, and yelled at him, but couldn’t stop him.

Witnesses say the gorilla wasn’t aggressive and even appeared to try to protect the boy. But zoo officials say the gorilla was agitated and was “dragging and throwing” the boy, and a visitor’s video showed the boy being violently dragged through the water of the moat. A zoo employee dropped the gorilla with a single rifle shot. Afterward, some critics questioned why the gorilla wasn’t tranquilized, but Zoo Director Thane Maynard said a tranquilizer dart wasn’t used because it takes several minutes to take effect and that might have been too late for the boy. On Sunday, TV personality and wildlife expert Jack Hanna said he agreed with the decision to kill the gorilla.

PETA and other animal welfare groups are questioning why the zoo didn’t have a more secure enclosure, but Maynard said in the gorilla exhibit’s 38-year history no one had ever climbed into the gorilla enclosure before. Still, the fact a young child got in clearly demonstrates a need for better fencing. Moreover, this has happened before; in 1996, a similar incident occurred at a Chicago-area zoo, suggesting a need for a better gorilla exhibit design. In that case, a 3-year-old boy who was knocked unconscious by a fall into the gorilla enclosure was rescued by a young female gorilla. (Read this story here.)

As for shooting the gorilla in this weekend’s incident, I think the zoo had to make a tough judgment call, and did the right thing by putting the boy’s life above the gorilla’s life. Note that a zoo employee, not the police, shot the gorilla; this is not a case of trigger-happy cops acting hastily. Besides Hanna, other wildlife experts are supporting the zoo’s decision.

But this incident should prompt zoo managers everywhere to think anew about whether their exhibits provide adequate separation between visitors and animals. The animals need to be protected from visitors as much as the other way around.

This posting has been updated from its original version. (Read the media reports used for this posting here and here. Read about the killed gorilla here.)

Photo: Harambe, the gorilla who was killed  

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