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Gorilla's Death Sparks Bitter Backlash Against Parents of Boy Who Fell into Enclosure

The Short of It

A rare gorilla was killed Saturday after a young boy climbed into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, and now the parents are facing a bitter backlash.

The Lowdown

The video of a 4-year-old boy falling a reported 15 feet into an enclosure of gorillas, after having climbed over the barrier, is hard to watch. At first, it appears the 17-year-old male gorilla, Harambe, is watching over the child, even perhaps comforting him, but then, as you can see on the footage posted to People magazine's site, the gorilla whips him around violently through the water-filled moat in the exhibit.

One can only imagine how terrified his mother must have been watching her son at the mercy of a giant, wild animal that weighed 450 pounds, and according to zoo officials, was "six times stronger than a man." She can be heard in a video of the nightmarish encounter, captured by Kim O'Connor, saying, "Calm down, Isaiah! Mommy loves you."

O'Connor told People, "People around me were talking about how big the gorilla was, calling him King Kong, and I heard him say, 'I wanna go!' and the mom was like, 'No, you're not!' She was putting kids in the strollers—there were four or five kids total—and getting ready to leave the exhibit. She didn't have him by the hand, and at one point, he must have been behind her, out of sight."

O'Connor continues her account of the events, saying, "All of a sudden, I heard a splash, and someone yelled, 'Oh my God, there's a kid in there!' Kids, men, women, everyone started screaming, and then the mother looked around and ran to the wall and said, 'Oh my God, that's my son!'"

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Once Harambe pulled Isaiah onto the concrete, O'Connor says she turned off the video. "I was frozen in fear, it was too traumatic to be on camera. What you don't see is the way he pulled the boy up the wall. He was treating the little boy like a Raggedy Ann doll in his grip," she recounts.

Zoo officials were forced to act quickly after a special call meant to calm the animal failed. It's believed the screams from onlookers overstimulated him, and zookeepers decided to shoot and kill Harambe.

After word of the animal's death got out, the Internet exploded with criticism, especially after some witnesses claimed the animal did not intend the boy harm—a notion that is hard to imagine when you watch the video.

But the backlash is larger than just a few angry tweets. Animal activists have created an online petition called "Justice for Harambe," which demands the Cincinnati Zoo, Child Protection Services and the Cincinnati Police Department hold the parents criminally accountable for the gorilla's untimely death.

And PETA has issued a highly critical statement in the aftermath of Harambe's death, saying he paid with his life for other people's negligence. CNN reports that demonstrators gathered outside the zoo Sunday to call for a boycott.

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Now the boy's mom, Michelle Gregg, who is a preschool administrator, has issued a statement that says, "God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him. My son is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes ... no broken bones or internal injuries. As a society we are quick to judge how a parent could take their eyes off of their child and if anyone knows me I keep a tight watch on my kids. Accidents happen..."

She also said of the zoo, "We are so thankful to the Lord that our child is safe. He is home and doing just fine. ... We know that this was a very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla."

The Upshot

Tuesday morning, a Cincinnati Police Department spokeswoman told People magazine that detectives have launched an investigation to look into the " facts and circumstances" of what led to the boy falling into the enclosure. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters confirmed to People that the investigation was initiated and that "once their investigation is concluded, they will confer with our office on possible criminal charges."

For its part, the Cincinnati Zoo defends the decision to put down their animal and refutes the notion that tranquilizing him was a viable solution. Director Thane Maynard, who admits Harambe was acting "erratically" when Isaiah was in his enclosure, said, "The idea of waiting and shooting it with a hypodermic was not a good idea. That would have definitely created alarm in the male gorilla. When you dart an animal, anesthetic doesn't work in one second, it works over a period of a few minutes to 10 minutes. The risk was due to the power of that animal." He added, "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."

The zoo, which regularly runs drills to prepare for a worst-case scenario, like what happened Saturday, is not pressing charges against the family and according to ABC News, says it would make the same decision to kill Harambe again. They also say Harambe's bloodline did not end with him.

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If you're like me, you're still left wondering how on Earth this little boy managed to get into the enclosure in the first place. But according to Maynard, the 3-foot high barrier separating visitors from the exhibit exceeded "any required protocols." The zoo is now looking into whether they need to improve the barrier to prevent another accident from happening again.

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