Cincinnati Zoo chief: "We saved that little boy's life"

CINCINNATI, Ohio - The director of the Cincinnati Zoo defended on Monday the decision to kill a popular gorilla after a three-year-old boy fell into the animal's enclosure. There has been growing criticism about whether the animal had to die, as well as the zoo's barrier keeping the public out and animals in.

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Zoo director Thane Maynard addressed reporters Monday afternoon, and said the "dangerous and sad" decision to allow the organization's emergency response team to kill the animal known as "Handsome Harambe" was not taken lightly, and that critics need to recognize that.

"I think they know we saved that little boy's life," Maynard said. "We stand by our decision."

The director also defended the animal's enclosure, which many have said must have been overly weak in terms of security if a three-year-old could penetrate it.

"We've never had to kill an animal in the middle of a dangerous situation" in the 144-year history of the zoo, Maynard said.

Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard
Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard

In describing the incident, Maynard said the boy initially fell about 15 feet into a shallow moat at the edge of the enclosure, and people outside it began making a commotion, which attracted Harambe's attention.

The Cincinnati boy was originally said to be four, not three.

Zoo keepers, when they realized what was happening, called the other gorillas in the enclosure over to leave the open area, and while Harambe normally responds well to keeper's demands, he was "excited" and "distracted" by the boy's presence, and therefore was the only animal to not listen.

"Gorillas are not polar bears," Maynard said. "He wasn't trying to eat the child."

"We did not take the shooting of Harambe lightly. But that child's life was in danger and people who question that who are Monday morning quarterbacks or second guessers do not understand you cannot take a risk with a silverback," said Maynard.

Ohio zoo defends killing gorilla after boy trapped

Despite what appeared to be a curiosity on Harambe's part, Maynard said the decision was taken to put the more than 400-pound gorilla down because "the risk was due to the power of that animal."

"This child was being dragged around," Maynard said. "His head was banging on concrete."

Maynard said officials are studying the gorilla enclosure's barrier, and the zoo director would not say whether any changes will be made.

The director said the zoo is devastated by the loss, because they're one of the key players in captive breeding and conservation of the endangered lowland gorilla.

CBS News' Jamie Yuccas reports the gorilla's death is also sparking social media outrage toward the mom. An online petition called "justice for Harambe" with more than 100,000 signatures calls for the boy's mother to face charges for not keeping track of him.

Kim O'Connor says just moments before she shot video of the incident, she heard the young boy and mom arguing.

Zoo director defends decision to kill gorilla

"I'm going to go in" ... "No you're not" ... "I'm going to go in" ... "No you're not," said O'Connor.

And then there was splash.

"He was pulling that boy under water by his ankle for a long period of time. A 4-year-old and when he scaled him up his head's banging against the wall as he's climbing up ... So that's the part people didn't see. They didn't need to see that," O'Connor said.

The boy's family released a statement saying he is home and fine. The family said they "extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff. We know that this was a very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla."