An endangered Western Lowland gorilla had to be shot and killed after a four-year-old boy climbed into the Gorilla World enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday afternoon, according to local NBC affiliate WLWT. The boy had climbed through a protective fence and fallen into the shallow water of the habitat’s moat. While two gorillas were coaxed out of the enclosure, a 400-pound male gorilla named Harambe remained behind and rushed over to the boy. It does not seem that he ever attacked the child, but he did periodically grab and pick him up, and also dragged him “violently” across the enclosure’s moat at least twice, possibly in reaction to all the people, including the boy’s mother, who were calling down as they watched in horror from outside the enclosure. The gorilla even seemed to be protecting the boy from the crowd at times.
Here is video of some the scene, shot by an onlooker and originally passed along by WLWT, then copied to YouTube (WLWT edited out the parts where the gorilla dragged the boy through the water, but you can hear the boy’s mother trying to reassure him during the ordeal):
The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team arrived within ten minutes of the boy falling in, and then shot and killed the gorilla in order to rescue the child, who at the time was sitting between the gorilla’s legs. Tranquilizers were not used because zoo officials were worried that they would not take effect fast enough when the gorilla was in such an agitated state. After Harambe was put down, firefighters removed the boy, who was reportedly calm despite the ordeal, and he was then taken to Children’s Hospital Medical Center with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s president, Thane Maynard, remarked that it was a “sad day all around” in a Saturday press conference, but that the zoo had to act even though the gorilla wasn’t attacking the boy, because due to the animal’s size and strength, “all sorts of things could happen in a situation like that.”
“They made a tough choice and they made the right choice. Because they saved that little boy’s life. It could have been very bad,” Maynard said, adding that, “We are all devastated that this tragic accident resulted in the death of a critically endangered gorilla. This is a huge loss for the Zoo family and the gorilla population worldwide.”
It’s not clear how the boy was able to enter the enclosure in the first place, but Maynard told reporters that it was the first time anyone has breached the steel-wire fence of the gorilla exhibit in its 38-year history. A witness told WLWT that she had heard the boy telling his mother beforehand that he wanted to go into the water in the habitat, and that she had repeatedly told him he could not, though it seems she was also trying to watch several other kids, so its possible the boy just slipped away. Another witness told the Cincinnati Enquirer that she saw the boy in the bushes beyond the fence and tried to grab him, but it all happened too fast and soon the boy had fallen the 10 to 12 feet down into the water.
Cincinnati police told the Enquirer that no charges would be filed against the parents of the boy over the incident.
As NPR’s Merrit Kennedy points out, this isn’t the first time this has happened:
[W]hen a 3-year-old child fell into the den at Illinois’ Brookfield Zoo in 1996, the story had a very different ending. The female gorilla Binti Jua gently cradled the child and eventually carried him over to paramedics — and it was caught on camera. The boy, who was never identified, reportedly made a full recovery.
According to National Geographic, Western Lowland gorillas are native to the thick forests of central and west Africa, and are an endangered species, though not as endangered, or as large, as their more famous Mountain cousins. They typically live to be about 35 years old. Harambe, who was born at a zoo in Texas and arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2014, and had just turned 17 on Friday. Here is a video of him that was taken in January:
WCPO Cincinnati reports that the zoo participates in a long-running propagation program for Western Lowland gorillas with other zoos throughout the U.S. They had been hoping to incorporate Harambe into their breeding program.
This post has been updated throughout to reflect new information as well as additional video of the gorilla and the boy.