Criminal charges possible amid public outcry over Cincinnati gorilla death

Flowers lay around a bronze statue of a gorilla and her baby outside the Cincinnati Zoo's Gorilla World exhibit, two days after a boy tumbled into its moat and officials were forced to kill Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S. May 30, 2016 © William Philpott
Police are considering criminal charges at the zoo in Cincinnati, where a gorilla was shot dead in order to save a young boy, as the public outcry continues. An online petition demanding justice for the gorilla has gathered over 350,000 signatures.

On Saturday, employees of the Cincinnati zoo shot and killed the 17-year-old gorilla called Harambe – a Western lowland silverback, which is an endangered species – after a 4-year-old boy fell into the moat at the gorilla enclosure.

An animal rights group said that it had filed a federal negligence complaint against the zoo with the US Department of Agriculture and demands the maximum penalty of $10,000, according to a prosecutor.

“The failure of the Cincinnati Zoo to adequately construct this enclosure to protect both the public and the animal held prisoner there is a clear and fatal violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” Stop Animal Exploitation Now said, as cited by Reuters.

The authorities initially decided not to charge anyone criminally after the incident took place, but the police are now rethinking the decision.

“The incident at the Cincinnati Zoo involving the young child who fell into the gorilla enclosure is under investigation by the Cincinnati Police Department,” Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters said in a statement. “Once their investigation is concluded, they will confer with our office on possible criminal charges.”

The outcry on social media has been growing following the shooting. Over 350,000 people have signed a petition on and want the police to hold the four-year-old child’s parents responsible for the ape’s death.

“This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child. We the undersigned believe that the child would not have been able to enter the enclosure under proper parental supervision,” part of the statement attached to the petition read.

The petition says that witnesses apparently heard the child say that he wanted to go into the enclosure and was “actively trying to breach the barriers.”

“We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life,” the statement added.

The child’s mother, Michelle Gregg, reportedly attempted to defend herself on Facebook.

“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,” Gregg wrote in the post, which was later deleted. “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 […]”

Members of the public have not been holding back on Twitter, demanding “Justice for Harambe.”

Almost all those commenting on the topic on social media seem to have made up their mind that Gregg was at fault for the gorilla’s death, due to her failure to keep an eye on the child.

However, the question reading whether the ape had to be shot is proving to be less clear-cut, with certain sections of social media understanding why the zookeepers took the course of action they deemed necessary.

Some outraged members of the public have been even holding candlelit vigils outside the zoo. Animal rights groups have called for a demonstration to be held on June 5 to protest the decision to kill the gorilla.

On Monday, the zoo’s director said that the decision to shoot the ape was correct and defended the safety measures in place, even though the boy was able to climb over the six-foot barrier and fall inside the moat.

“The barriers are safe. The barriers exceed any required protocols,” said Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, according to Reuters.

“The trouble with barriers is that whatever the barrier some people can get past it. ... No, the zoo is not negligent,” he added.