Ohio zoo gorilla exhibit barrier too short when Harambe was shot

The entrance to the the Cincinnati Zoo's Gorilla World exhibit © William Philpott
Federal inspectors have concluded the Cincinnati Zoo barrier at its gorilla exhibit was not in compliance with regulations. Harambe, a 400lb silverback gorilla, was shot by zookeepers to protect a boy earlier this year, causing a social media sensation.

US Department of Agriculture inspectors found the zoo's barrier separating the public and gorillas did not effectively house primates, it was reported Thursday.

"It became apparent on May 28 that the barrier was no longer effective," USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in an email to WKRC. "The Cincinnati Zoo took swift and comprehensive corrective action in response."

The Cincinnati Zoo maintained at the time the barrier was “adequate” but quickly made it taller and used nylon mesh to close any gaps after the incident. Video surveillance was also added.

In a report dated June 6, federal inspectors noted there had been "some slack" in wire cables in the barrier that could have been "manipulated to an eight-inch gap."

There had been no prior problems with the barrier, and an earlier federal inspection in April concluded it was compliant.

“We also acknowledge that the barrier system at Gorilla World was considered to be in compliance with… the Animal Welfare Act Regulations during inspections prior to the incident in question and had been performing admirably for many years,” Elizabeth Goldentyer, director of Animal Welfare Operations at the US Department of Agriculture wrote, according to WKRC.

The inspection report, viewed by the Associated Press, found the dangerous-animal response team did follow protocol after zoo visitors called police to report a 3-year-old child in the gorilla enclosure.

Harambe © Cincinnati Zoo

Espinosa, the Agriculture Department spokeswoman, says an investigation is continuing, and it could lead to fines or other disciplinary action.

In May this year, a 3-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure and was grabbed and dragged by Harambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla.

Witnesses said they heard the child say he wanted to go into the gorilla enclosure. The boy then climbed a three-foot tall fence, crawled through four feet of bushes, and then fell 15 feet into a moat of shallow water.

Zoo officials immediately signaled for the three gorillas in the habitat to return inside, and two females did so. However, the third gorilla, the inquisitive 440-pound (200 kg) male silverback, Harambe, climbed down into the moat to investigate the child splashing in the water.

As Harambe dragged the child through the water by the ankle and then banged the boy’s head climbing up the wall of the enclosure, zoo workers feared for the child’s life and shot and killed the gorilla.

The incident was recorded on video and became a sensation receiving broad international coverage and commentary, with controversy over the choice to kill Harambe.

A number of primatologists and conservationists wrote later that the zoo had no other choice under the circumstances, and that it highlighted the danger of zoo animals in close proximity to humans and the need for better standards of care.