Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla Barrier Under Investigation Following Death Of Harambe

Gorilla World’s barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo came under fire Saturday after it was breached by a toddler who fell 15 feet into the moat. Police are investigating, with potential for criminal charges.

Gorilla experts have defended the zoo, but the facility has borne the brunt of public criticism over the ape enclosure’s fence, its first infraction since the zoo opened in 1978.

The USDA, charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act, is investigating the incident. The USDA is in charge of inspecting the facility twice a year.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told CBS News on Tuesday that there wasn’t an investigation open yet for the gorilla matter.

But, she said, the service will “be looking into this incident.”

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters released a statement on Tuesday saying the Cincinnati Police Department is involved.

“Once their investigation is concluded, they will confer with our office on possible criminal charges. When the investigation and review are complete, we will update the media.”

Gorilla World’s barrier setup exceeds required protocols and has been in place for 38 years without incident, according to zoo director Thayne Maynard.

Exhibits are inspected by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums every five years for accreditation, Maynard said.

“The exhibit is safe, the barrier is safe. The zoo was not negligent.”

Just before 4 p.m. Saturday, the 3-year-old child climbed over a stainless steel rail fence. The barrier is over three feet high and has vertical bars every eight feet.

The boy proceeded another four feet, through the bushes to the edge of the moat. He dropped 15 feet into the moat, landing in a foot and a half of water.

Two female gorillas in the enclosure were immediately called inside by zoo staff, but the splashing of the boy attracted the attention of Harambe, a silverback male.

The 17-year-old gorilla ignored the zoo staff and went down into the moat. The animal then dragged the child around in the water before carrying him up the ladder into the gorilla enclosure.

Harambe commandeered the child for 10 minutes before the ape was shot to death by order of zoo authority.

It was a first for the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team, which has never before been required to put down an animal in the institution’s 143-year history.

Maynard said, “We take safety very seriously. That’s an ongoing process.”

The Cincinnati Zoo, Maynard said, is “taking responsibility.”

“I’m not a big finger-pointer. Politicians and pundits point fingers. We live in the real world and we make real decisions. People, kids and others, can climb over barriers.”

He said it was similar to locking your house, or your car, explaining, “If someone really wants to get in, they can.”

“Everybody should keep a hold of their kids and keep an eye on them, here or anywhere.”

The institution has been supported by a host of animal experts, including world-renown primatologist Jane Goodall and TV personality Jack Hanna, who agreed that shooting Harambe was the right decision under the circumstances.

Animal Planet host Jeff Corwin took it a step further, calling out the parents of the toddler.

“The zoo is not your babysitter.”

The parents of the child have been the subject of widespread blame for the death of Harambe. Animal advocates have circulated a petition calling for their prosecution, “Justice for Harambe,” which to date has amassed over 300,000 signatures.

The child’s mother, Michelle Gregg, responded to the outrage over the gorilla’s death in a statement, saying, “Accidents happen.”

According to an article by USA Today, the Cincinnati Zoo does not intend to press charges over the death of the gorilla.

The facility plans a $12 million expansion to Gorilla World, which is expected to be completed next year.

[Image via Anthony Ricci/Shutterstock]