The Hamilton County prosecutors’ office said Tuesday that officials plan to meet with police investigating how a boy fell into an enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo before the endangered gorilla was shot and killed by rescuers.
The announcement arrives just days after police said they had no plan to file charges against the boy’s parents, but occurs amid a growing online chorus calling for the guardians to be held legally responsible for the animal’s death.
Other critics have accused the zoo of not doing enough to keep people out of the dangerous exhibit at Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that they plan to meet with police at the conclusion of their investigation, which is ongoing, according to the Associated Press.
The gorilla’s death unleashed an outpouring of grief 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.
“Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder,” a commenter from Denmark named Per Serensen wrote on the page. “Soooo angry.”
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 formally 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 Aug. 31, 1986, at the Durrell Wildlife Park, and again on Aug. 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 boy’s mother has not been formally identified by police, but other women who share her alleged name on social media have received threatening messages intended for her, attacks that called her “scum,” “a really bad mother” and a “f‑‑‑ing killer.”
“that animal is more important than your s‑‑‑ kid,” one man messaged.
Another woman wrote: “u should’ve been shot.”
At times, the barrage of insults was racially charged, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.
By Monday, the threats grew so intense that Cincinnati police felt compelled to act.
“Even though they’re not direct death threats, we’re going to reach out to the mother and let her know what’s going on, if she doesn’t know already,” police spokesman Lt. Steve Saunders told the Enquirer. “We’re going to keep her in the loop. We’re going to err on the side of safety for her and her family.”
At a news conference Monday, Maynard said Harambe’s handlers considered the gorilla smart and easy to train. His nickname was “Handsome Harambe” and he will be missed by those who cared for him, he said.
Addressing critics who questioned the zoo’s decision to kill the gorilla, Maynard said people should not underestimate the amount of danger the child was in as the massive creature clutched his leg and dragged him across the enclosure.
“We’re talking about an animal that I’ve seen crush a coconut with one hand,” Maynard said, noting that the animal had become disoriented by the situation, making his behavior even harder to predict. “The child was being dragged around, his head was banging on concrete. This was not a gentle thing.”
“In the real world you make difficult calls and the safety of that child was paramount,” he added.
The director also addressed suggestions that the zoo was to blame for the fall since the barriers didn’t successfully keep the child out. Maynard told reporters that the facility is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and that the enclosure barriers exceed recommendations.
“You can lock your car, you can lock your house, but if someone really wants to, they can get in,” Maynard said at the news conference. “Do you know any 4-year-olds? They can climb over anything.”
During interviews in which they defended the zoo’s lethal response to the situation, two well-known wildlife experts and TV personalities, Jack Hanna and Jeff Corwin, attacked the parenting of the child.
“Zoos aren’t your babysitter,” Corwin told Fox 25 News. “Take a break from the cellphone and the selfie stick and the texting. Connect with your children. Be responsible for your children. I don’t think this happened in seconds or minutes. I think this took time, for this kid, for this little boy to find himself in this situation. And ultimately, it’s the gorilla that has paid that price.”
Corwin emphasized that the loss of Harambe is especially devastating because his species is on the “precipice of extinction.”
“No amount of money or biology or science can ever bring back what was lost with the death of this gorilla,” he said.
In an interview on “CBS This Morning,” Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said he agreed “1,000 percent” with the zoo’s decision to shoot the gorilla. But he, too, spoke about the importance of parental supervision at zoos, comparing the locations to parks and malls.
“Just watch your kids. … I’m sure that the mother here did the best she could. I guess maybe she was doing something else, I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” he said.
The public outrage has only seemed to intensify as new details about the incident emerge. 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.
“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.”