CINCINNATI (AP) — An animal protection watchdog group Tuesday called on federal authorities to hold the Cincinnati Zoo responsible for the death of an endangered western lowland gorilla.
The zoo's director, Thane Maynard, said Monday it remains safe for its 1.6 million annual visitors despite a weekend tragedy in which a gorilla was fatally shot to protect a 4-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit. But, he added that a review is underway to determine any improvements that can be made.
Maynard said the powerful gorilla was agitated and disoriented by the commotion during the 10 minutes after the boy fell and that the zoo stands by the decision to shoot 17-year-old Harambe. The boy was taken to a hospital and released Saturday evening; his family said he was "doing just fine" in a statement Sunday. He hasn't been identified publicly.
The Cincinnati-based Stop Animal Exploitation NOW said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects zoo facilities, should fine the zoo for violating the Animal Welfare Act by having an exhibit in which people can gain access to animals. The zoo didn't immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said Tuesday there wasn't an investigation open yet, but that the service will "be looking into this incident."
"The (zoo's) barrier obviously isn't sufficient to keep the public out," the watchdog group's executive director, Michael Budkie, told The Associated Press. "Otherwise, Harambe wouldn't be dead."
He said the zoo has had past issues, including in March, when two polar bears wandered through an open den door into a service hallway The zoo reported March 16 that zoo visitors were moved for safety after a male and female bear entered the behind-the-scenes service area, but remained contained.
Zoo staff moved the bears back to their main containment area with two hours, the zoo said at the time, adding that there were no injuries to bears or people.
Jack Hanna, host of "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild," said the zoo made the right call by shooting the gorilla. Hanna said he saw video of the gorilla jerking the boy through the water and knew what would happen if the animal wasn't killed.
"I'll bet my life on this, that child would not be here today," Hanna told WBNS-TV.
In an interview with Boston television station WFXT, conservationist and television host Jeff Corwin suggested that the boy's family should shoulder some of the blame, saying "zoos aren't your baby sitter."
"I don't think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time for this kid, this little boy, to find himself in that situation. Ultimately it's the gorilla that's paid this price," he said.
A Cincinnati police spokesman said Sunday that no charges against the parents were being considered. A spokeswoman for the family said Monday they had no plans to comment.
"I do think there's a degree of responsibility they have to be held to," said Kate Villanueva, a mother of two children from Erlanger, Kentucky, who started the "Justice for Harambe" page and attended a Monday vigil for the gorilla outside the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, where Harambe spent most of his life, said its staff is deeply saddened by the gorilla's death. Harambe was sent to Cincinnati less than two years ago in hopes he would eventually breed with gorillas there.
Jerry Stones, facilities director at Gladys Porter Zoo raised Harambe since birth and has worked with the gorilla's family since they first entered the U.S., the Brownsville Herald reported. He spoke Monday about his relationship with Harambe.
"He was a character. . He grew up to be a beautiful, beautiful animal, never aggressive and never mean," Stones said, according to the newspaper. "He would tease the heck out of people and would do things to irritate you just like some kids."
Stones said he would take Harambe home with him when the gorilla was a baby and let him sleep on his bed, according to KRGV-TV.
There are critics of the zoo's decision to kill Harambe. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the zoo should have had better barriers between humans and the gorillas.
Maynard said the atmosphere following the incident is "very emotional."
"Not everyone shares the same opinion and that's OK," he said. "But we all share the love for animals."
Maynard said the zoo has received messages of support and condolences from around the world, including from other zoo directors and gorilla experts. He said zoo visitors have been leaving flowers at the exhibit and asking how they could support gorilla conservation.
This is an update to the developing story below.
CINCINNATI (AP) — 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.
The boy sat still in the water, looking up at the gorilla as the animal touched the child's hand and back. At one point, it looked as though the gorilla helped the youngster stand up.
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.
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.
O'Connor shared video she and her family recorded of the boy and Harambe. The two appear in a corner of the exhibit while visitors yell, "Somebody call the zoo!" and "Mommy's right here!" The station did not air portions of the video showing the gorilla dragging the boy.
Another woman said that just before the boy fell, she saw him in bushes beyond a fence around the exhibit.
"I tried to grab for him. I started yelling at him to come back," Brittany Nicely told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Everybody started screaming and going crazy. It happened so fast."
Zoo staff cleared the area and visitors heard gunfire a few minutes later. Firefighters then rushed into the enclosure and picked up the boy.
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.
Maynard called the killing a tragic death of a critically endangered species and a huge loss for the zoo and the gorilla population worldwide. The gorilla came to Cincinnati in 2015 from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.
Visitors left flowers at a gorilla statue Sunday. Gorilla World remained closed, but the rest of the zoo was open.
One father said he was shocked that the boy was able to get past the fence and bushes that surround the exhibit. He expects the zoo will take a close at it.
"They probably thought the moat and the fence was good enough," said Alex Salcedo. "Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like it was if a 4-year-old can get through."
Associated Press writers Dan Sewell and John Seewer in Cincinnati contributed to this report.