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Lesson of the Cincinnati gorilla killing: The zoo is not a playground

Lesson of the Cincinnati gorilla killing: The zoo is not a playground
Harambe the gorilla was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into the exhibit. (Cincinnati Zoo)

The killing of an endangered western lowland gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on Saturday after a child fell into the enclosure was a tragic event. Was there another way to go? Probably not at that moment. But there may be precautions that the zoo — all zoos — can take to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. And parents need to be more careful as well. The zoo is not a playground.

On Saturday afternoon, a 4-year-old boy climbed over a 3-foot barrier fence, then made his way through about four feet of bushes before falling 15 feet into a moat in the Gorilla World habitat, according to accounts. (There's an excellent graphic in the Cincinnati Enquirer.) Zoo staff called the gorillas out of the exhibit. Two females complied, but Harambe, a silverback male gorilla who had turned 17 the day before, remained in the exhibit and went over to the child.

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Cellphone video of the incident, shot by a zoo visitor, is mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. As the screams of visitors above the moat pierce the air, the gorilla looks up, seemingly startled. The gorilla, weighing more than 420 pounds, stands over the tiny boy, then takes him at one point and gently props him up on his feet. Then suddenly, the gorilla grabs him by the ankle and sets off at a fast clip through the shallow moat, dragging the boy along. Does he think the boy is a toy to play with? A small animal to protect? Or one to pounce on eventually?

"The gorilla was clearly agitated; the gorilla was clearly disoriented," zoo director Thane Maynard said at a news conference Monday. Whether the gorilla intended to hurt the boy was less an issue than the fact that he simply could do so by the brute force of swinging him around.

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"His arms are as big as our legs," said Maynard on Monday. "They have huge hands, extremely strong. And that was the risk."

The zoo's Dangerous Animal Response Team chose not to shoot a tranquilizing dart at the gorilla — lest that agitate him more — but to kill him with a single rifle shot. The child, who initially was taken to a hospital, is reportedly fine and at home.

The gorilla's death leaves the zoo with only one genetically valuable male silverback. There are 10 gorillas at the zoo.

Meanwhile, people have left notes and flowers at the gorilla statue at the entrance to the gorilla exhibit, which is currently closed.

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According to reports from bystanders, the child was with his mother and a few other children. Did an adult get distracted? Did the curious boy quickly slip away? Maybe both. On social media, animal lovers are angry that a parent may have been careless enough to let her son slip into an enclosure, precipitating the death of this animal. In just a couple of days, a Facebook group called "Justice for Harambe" has gotten more than 100,000 "likes." A Change.org petition asking for an investigation into the child's home environment has more than a quarter of a million signatures.

Whether you think that's necessary, the point is this: A moment that was probably careless on the part of a parent had devastating consequences for the animal, for the zoo, for conservation.

I heard a thoughtful animal-welfare advocate on CNN over the weekend suggest that zoos have a minimum age for visitors at exhibits. I wouldn't go that far. The best zoos today provide unique — and affordable —educational and recreational opportunities for families. Every time I am at the LA Zoo, I am struck by the range of ages of visitors — parents with children in strollers, toddlers, schoolchildren, young couples holding hands, older people.

That said, it's imperative that parents and other adults minding children remember that the zoo is not a giant playground where children can run freely and every structure is there for the climbing. As animal conservationist Jeff Corwin said this weekend, "The zoo is not your babysitter." Perhaps zoos should have staff and volunteers stationed at various exhibits to monitor visitors — to stop them from going where they shouldn't or harassing animals.

Most zoos have series of barriers — fencing, glass, landscaping and naturalistic features — that make it quite a challenge to get all the way to a dangerous wild animal. But no boundary is perfect. At a zoo in Santiago, Chile, recently, a suicidal man got into a lion enclosure. The lion nearly mauled him to death before zoo staff killed the lion.

And it works the other way. Clever chimps figure ways out of enclosures. A tiger at the San Francisco Zoo several years ago leapt out of its grotto and mauled to death a young man who had been seen taunting the tiger. In all these cases, zoos have to reconfigure barriers.

"It's really complex," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S. "People get into enclosures, and that's where parenting and supervision, as well as architecture and design, have to be in the forefront of our thinking."

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The Cincinnati Zoo, which has exhibited gorillas for decades and has had a spurt of successful births of young gorillas in recent years, is in the midst of a $12-million remodel and expansion of the habitat for its gorillas, according to the zoo's website. That remodel should include refashioning perimeters to discourage agile little children.

Yes, children are sneaky. Even the zoo director, peppered with questions about how the child could have gotten across the barriers, shot back, "Do you know any 4-year-olds?" Fine. But since children are a big portion of the zoo's visitor base, let's see if we can build fencing that will outsmart them.

All zoos and all parents should learn from the tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo.

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