00:10 - Source: CNN
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Gorilla expert: If the animal wanted to harm the child, he would have done it in seconds

Zoo official: A tranquilizer shot could have caused more danger

CNN —  

A 10-minute encounter between a 450-pound gorilla and a 3-year-old boy at the Cincinnati Zoo has spawned days of heated debate about parenting and the gorilla’s death.

So, what was Harambe the gorilla doing, who’s really at fault, and what should have been done? Depends on who you ask.

Was Harambe trying to hurt the child?


“From what we saw (the child) could have been killed at any second,” witness Bruce Davis told CNN affiliate WCPO. “He threw him 10 feet in the air, and I saw him land on his back. It was a mess.”

Definitely not:

“He was actually pulling him away from where the people were shouting and screaming, obviously concerned for the little chap,” said Richard Johnstone-Scott, a gorilla keeper for 46 years. “It seems to me that he actually almost helped the boy to his feet, which was quite amazing. … I don’t think Harambe was looking to hurt that child. If he intended to hurt that child, it would have been over in seconds.”

Johnstone-Scott, who was not at the Cincinnati Zoo when the encounter happened, was once the keeper of Jambo, a zoo gorilla who apparently stood guard over a boy who had fallen into his enclosure at the Jersey Zoo in 1986.

Is the mother to blame?


Many people on social media noted how easy it is for a young child to slip away in a few seconds.

“We can all wag our fingers and blame the mom for the kid falling in the gorilla pen,” one Twitter user wrote. “If you do, you don’t remember what a 4yo is like.”

CNN commentator Mel Robbins argued that empathy, rather than blame, is a better reaction.

“What if instead of lawyering up and assigning blame like we always do, we take a step back in this instance and try a little empathy? The parents didn’t throw the kid into the enclosure, the crowd didn’t mean to agitate Harambe and the zoo didn’t want to have to kill him,” Robbins wrote. “The situation was horrible for everyone involved. It was an accident.”


Others lambasted the mother, whose screams can be heard in a video of the encounter, for not preventing her son from getting into the enclosure.

“Don’t take your kids to the zoo if you are unable to keep an eye on them at all times. Simple,” a Twitter user named Malak wrote.

More than 320,000 people have echoed that sentiment by signing an online petition seeking “Justice for Harambe.”

“This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy’s parents did not keep a closer watch on the child,” the petition states.

Kimberley Ann Perkins O’Connor, who filmed the encounter, said she thinks the boy’s mother was distracted for more than a split second – long enough to give him time to find his way into the habitat.

“Unfortunately, it was a bad situation where a (3-year-old) didn’t have the attention of his mother for seconds,” she said. “I don’t think it was as easy as standing up and falling in. He actually had to climb under something, through some bushes and then into the moat.”

Was Harambe an aggressive animal?

Any large gorilla can be:

Animal expert Jeff Corwin said a gorilla’s behavior runs the gamut.

“We have seen great examples of altruism. We’ve seen when gorillas have actually rescued children who have fallen into their enclosure. We’ve also seen worst-case scenarios unfold when human primates connect with other primates like gorillas and chimpanzees,” Corwin said.

“Harambe weighed 450 pounds. It was exponentially stronger than this child. And if it had wanted to, it could have instantly dispatched this child.”

No, it wasn’t his nature:

“He was not mean. He was a gentle little guy. He grew up to be a beautiful animal but he was never aggressive,” said Jerry Stones, one of Harambe’s former caretakers at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. “He would tease the heck out of people; he would do things just to irritate you.”

Did the zoo have to kill Harambe?

No, he should have been tranquilized instead:

Many critics questioned why the zoo decided to shoot Harambe with a rifle rather than with tranquilizers.

“I would have rather seen a tranquilizer gun rather than a shoot to kill,” a Twitter user named Sarah Ann said.

Yes, the boy’s life was at risk:

Ron Magill, a spokesman for Zoo Miami, said a tranquilizer dart could have actually put the boy in more danger.

“I have been in situations where we have tranquilized gorillas on various occasions. As soon as that tranquilizer dart hits the gorilla, it’s like a tranquilizer dart hit you – you’d go, ‘Ow!’ But with gorillas, they don’t know what it is,” Magill said.

“They have what’s called displaced aggression – where all of a sudden, whatever’s closest to them, they think is the reason they felt that dart. That child could have been in even more severe danger had they tried the tranquilizer dart. And the fact is, it would have taken minutes to take effect.”

CNN’s Steve Visser and Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.