The killing of an endangered gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo to rescue a boy who fell into a dangerous enclosure unleashed an outpouring of grief on over the holiday weekend.
Within hours, that grief had turned to fury as critics questioned the zoo’s decision to kill the endangered 17-year-old gorilla, named Harambe, and called for the boy’s parents to be punished for not adequately supervising their child.
A Facebook page called “Justice for Harambe” received more than 41,000 “likes” within hours of its creation. The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder” and includes YouTube tributes and memes celebrating the western lowland gorilla and admonishing zoo officials.
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“Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder,” a commenter from Denmark named Per Serensen wrote on the page. “Soooo angry.”
Lt. Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the Cincinnati Police Department, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that they have no plans to charge the child’s parents.
That news didn’t stop tens of thousands from signing multiple online petitions calling for Cincinnati Child Protective Services to investigate the boy’s parents - who have not been identified - for negligence.
“I’m signing because a beautiful critically endangered animal was killed as a direct result of her failure to supervise her child,” one signee wrote. “I don’t blame the zoo staff for the decision they made, I’m sure they’re heartbroken.”
“If she’d watched her child he wouldn’t have been in the gorilla enclosure in the first place,” the commenter added.
A petition on Change.org asks for legislation to be passed that creates “legal consequences when an endangered animal is harmed or killed due to the negligence of visitors.” The petition has amassed more than 40,000 signatures.
“This is not the first time that this has happened in the gorilla world, it happened on August 31, 1986 at the Durrell Wildlie Park and again on August 16, 1996 at the Brookfield Zoo,” the petition states. “In these two cases the gorillas were not killed and both of the children were rescued.”
The encounter at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden occurred Saturday afternoon when the boy crawled through a barrier and fell into a moat at the facility’s outdoor gorilla center, zoo director Thane Maynard told reporters.
The public outrage that ensued seemed to intensify as new details about the incident emerged. Some witnesses told the Enquirer that the gorilla appeared to be protecting the boy at first but seemed to grow increasingly rough and distressed by the shouts from onlookers.
Witness Kim O’Connor told NBC affiliate WLWT-TV that she overheard the child saying he wanted to jump into the gorilla’s enclosure. She said the boy’s mother was caring for multiple children at the time.
“The mother’s like, ‘No, you’re not. No, you’re not,’ “ O’Connor said, adding that her group ended up hearing the gunshot that killed the gorilla.
“We really would just like to know that that little boy is okay because of what we saw, the trauma of what we saw,” she added.
Brittany Nicely told the Enquirer that she was visiting the zoo with multiple children and witnessed the incident unfold.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little boy in the bushes past the little fence area,” she told the paper. “I tried to grab for him. I started yelling at him to come back.”
“Everybody started screaming and going crazy,” she added. “It happened so fast.”
After being evacuated, Nicely told the paper, she stood outside the exhibit with her group.
“About four or five minutes later we heard the gunshot,” she said. “We were pretty distraught. All the kids were crying.”
The next day, zoo officials raced to quell mounting outrage by posting a lengthy statement on Facebook detailing the decision to kill Harambe.
“We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made by our Dangerous Animal Response Team,” Maynard said.
The statement added that officials’ first response was to call the gorillas out of the exhibit, an order that two female gorillas followed, but Harambe did not. Tranquilizing the 450-pound animal was not an option, the statement said, because the child was in “imminent” danger and Harambe may have become agitated.
The statement noted that Saturday’s incident was the first time the exhibit had been breached in its 38 years of existence.
“We’re glad to hear that the child is going to be okay. We’re touched by the outpouring of support from the community and our members who loved Harambe,” Maynard said. “The Zoo family is going through a painful time, and we appreciate your understanding and know that you care about our animals and the people who care for them.”
The statement has been shared more than 11,000 times and unleashed more than 10,000 comments on the zoo’s Facebook page, many of which call for the child’s parents to be severely punished.
“That child’s parents should be responsible for the financial loss of that Gorilla,” Rob Young wrote, receiving 11,000 “likes.” “And any associated costs seeing that they couldn’t adequately supervise their own child and now a magical animal lost his life because of their error.”