Panicked zoo visitors watched helplessly and shouted, “Stay calm!” while one woman yelled, “Mommy loves you!” as a 400-pound-plus gorilla loomed over a 4-year-old boy who had fallen into a shallow moat at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday.
Two witnesses said they thought the gorilla was trying to protect the boy at first before getting spooked by the screams of onlookers. The animal then picked the child up out of the moat and dragged him to another spot inside the exhibit, zoo officials said.
Fearing for the boy’s life, the zoo’s dangerous-animal response team shot and killed the 17-year-old ape, named Harambe.
Brittany Nicely of Fairborn was at the zoo with her children and said she saw the boy before he fell into the exhibit and tried to help. She was standing next to the boy’s mother, she said.
“It just happened so fast,” Nicely said Sunday. “I tried to prevent it. I tried to grab him and I just couldn’t get to him fast enough.
“(Nicely’s children) were all crying. And on top of that, we heard the gunshot. I don’t know if they knew what it was, but I did instantly.”
Nicely said visitors were evacuated from the area before the response team arrived.
The child, whose name was not released, was released from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center on Saturday night, hours after the fall.
His family said in a statement Sunday that the boy was home and doing fine.
“We extend our 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 family said.
Zoo Director Thane Maynard said the gorilla didn’t appear to be attacking the child but was “an extremely strong” animal in an agitated situation. He said tranquilizing the gorilla wouldn’t have knocked it out immediately, leaving the boy in danger.
“They made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life,” Maynard said.
Zoo officials said the 4-year-old climbed through a barrier at the Gorilla World exhibit and dropped 15 feet into the moat Saturday afternoon. He was in there for about 10 minutes. Two female gorillas also were in the enclosure.
The two females complied with calls from zoo staff to leave the exhibit, but Harambe stayed, Maynard said.
Witness Kim O’Connor said she heard the boy say he wanted to get in the water with the gorillas. She said the boy’s mother was with several other young children.
“The mother’s like, ‘No, you’re not. No, you’re not,’” O’Connor told WLWT-TV.
Lt. Steve Saunders, a Cincinnati police spokesman, said there are no plans to charge the parents.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the zoo should have had a second barrier around the exhibit.
“Even under the ‘best’ circumstances, captivity is never acceptable for gorillas or other primates, and in cases like this, it’s even deadly,” PETA said.
The exhibit opened nearly 40 years ago, and this was the first breach, the zoo said.
Visitors left flowers at a gorilla statue Sunday. Gorilla World remained closed, but the rest of the zoo was open.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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