Debate rages on social media over parental role in gorilla incident

Last Updated Jun 1, 2016 3:55 PM EDT

The Cincinnati Zoo's decision to shoot and kill an endangered silverback gorilla to protect a young child who entered its enclosure has sparked fierce debate on social media about the zoo's actions and about how much responsibility rests with the boy's parents.

As captured in video that's now gone viral, a 3-year-old boy somehow found his way into the zoo's gorilla enclosure, the first breach in the exhibit's 38 year history. Quickly, zoo workers lured two of the female gorillas away from the child.

But the third gorilla, a male named Harambe, did not budge. Instead, he stayed close to the child, holding onto him, looking up as onlookers screamed, and dragging the child sporadically around the enclosure's moat. The zoo's emergency response team then made what it called a "difficult decision" in the heat of a "life-threatening situation": they shot and killed Harambe.

It didn't take long for the controversy over that decision to set the internet ablaze. From presidential candidates to pop stars, everyone with a social media account seems to have an opinion on Harambe's death and the actions of the mother, child and zookeepers.

Some expressed sympathy with the mom, knowing how quickly a toddler can escape from sight and get into trouble, while others put the blame squarely on the child's parents.

Cincinnati police said Tuesday they are investigating "the actions of the parents/family that led up to the incident." CBS News has learned the child's mother has even received death threats in the days since the gorilla's death.

Comedian Ricky Gervais and actor D.L. Hughley were among those pointing fingers.

On Facebook, Democratic strategist Lis Smith called for harsher penalties for "delinquent" parents and, more broadly, for society to "have a reckoning about how we treat our closest relatives":

A petition on Change.org with more than 380,000 supporters proclaims, "We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child's home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death."

But others took a very different view.

Writing in "Slate," Alissa Strauss urged people to stop blaming the parents for this unforeseeable tragedy.

"I can say with certainty that there is no parent out there who has never looked away from his or her child for even a moment," she argued. "Today's mothers and fathers are constantly denounced as helicopter parents -- micromanagers and overcoddlers of their children who will never learn how to be independent. The finger-pointing at the parents of the boy at the zoo suggests that there is no such thing as the right amount of parenting. Things go wrong because either we've done too little or done too much. Either way, it's all our fault."

Kara Carrero, author and host of the podcast "Extremely Good Parenting," penned an open letter on her blog today to "extend an invitation of mercy" to the mother whose child found his way into the gorilla enclosure. That child should never have been able to breach an enclosure meant to keep a 400 pound gorilla from humans, Carrero wrote.

"I also know that as a mother of two and now almost 3 kids, they can slip away in a single instant. They dart between clothing racks, climb to the tops of trees, and seemingly disappear even when we're trying to pay attention and juggle life in general," she wrote. "It's easy to point fingers from behind a keyboard. It's easy to attack you because the mob mentality is that someone must pay and someone must be to blame. And it's easy to forget that, again, you are not the only party involved."

On the campaign trail, even presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the issue (without exactly taking sides) as CBS News campaign embed Sopan Deb reported:

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