Zoo Gorilla Shot After Child Enters Enclosure—and How These Tragedies Can be Prevented

gorilla L.A. Zoo


(A gorilla at the L.A. Zoo–not Harambe)


My blogs are normally about dogs. As an animal lover, however, I am so angered and saddened by a recent incident at the Cincinnati Zoo that I can’t help but speak out. Piecing together various accounts, here’s what happened: A 4-year-old boy crawled through a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. Zookeepers quickly moved the 2 female gorillas into another area, but the 17-year old male gorilla was still inside. An eyewitness reported that the gorilla “rushed toward the boy and led him by the arm through the water in the enclosure,” and that he, “seemed protective and only alarmed by all the screaming.” The boy was in the enclosure for 10 minutes with no injuries. The zoo president says, “while Harambe didn’t attack the child, the animal’s size and strength posed a great danger.” The zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response team felt a tranquilizer would have taken too long to take effect and so, with the boy between the gorilla’s legs, they shot Harambe dead. The boy was taken to a hospital where he was determined to have sustained non-life-threatening but serious injuries.

How did this happen in the first place? To reach the gorillas, the boy had to go under the safety rail, crawl through wires, and climb over the moat wall. According to one eyewitness, the boy’s mother was “tending to several other children” when he slipped away. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this type of thing has happened. In 2014, a 3-year-old boy at the Little Rock Zoo “fell into” the big cat exhibit after his grandfather put him up on the railing to see the cats. A zookeeper reported seeing a yellow jaguar with its jaws around the neck of the boy. In this case, the staff used a fire extinguisher to drive the cat back, lower a ladder, and rescue the boy. The boy was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Need more? Last year at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 2-year old boy fell into a cheetah exhibit. The boy’s mother was “holding him and another child” over the railing when he fell in. Fortunately, they were able to get the boy out and the cheetah seemed more curious than anything.

There have been many similar incidents at zoos over the years. I’m not a parent (unless you count my fur-kids), and I’m sure it’s difficult to keep an eye on your child 24/7. But in each of these cases, had a parent been supervising, not to mention not doing anything incredibly stupid like standing the child up on a railing or other precarious spot, these incidents would never have occurred. I spend time photographing zoo animals, and almost every time I visit I see exactly this kind of insanity.

Regardless of how you feel about whether zoos should exist, they do, and a large part of their income comes from families with children. Instead of blaming parents or zookeepers, what about coming up with a solution? Zoos should have more secure enclosures for sure, and having zoos amp up safety would be great. But since that might not happen anytime soon, here’s my idea. It has two parts: First, any family with a child that is seen up on a railing or other precarious area must be escorted out of the zoo immediately. Highly visible signage around the zoo should warn them this will happen. Second, there are harness/leash combinations that are specifically designed for children. Children of a certain age and below should be required to wear one while on zoo grounds. This would prevent this sort of tragedy from ever happening again. It would also prevent children from running into other visitors (something I have experienced quite often) and from getting lost. (Parents, I defer to you on particulars and if you don’t like this idea, I would love to hear others.)

The death of Harambe, a western lowland gorilla—a critically endangered species—could have easily been prevented. So could many other similar incidents. Let’s learn from this heartbreaking tragedy and change things so it can’t happen again.

40 Responses to Zoo Gorilla Shot After Child Enters Enclosure—and How These Tragedies Can be Prevented

  1. Whatever happened to kiddie reins for toddlers? What a waste of a beautiful specimen in Harambe. I still remember watching David Attenborough with the gorillas in awe. Respect to the Man for his respect of the animals and their habitat.

  2. riverdogfarm says:

    This is a sad story for all concerned and totally preventable. Kids on leashes is an excellent idea in any environment.

  3. How about designing child-proof and stupid-parent-proof barriers?

    • Tammy says:

      There is no such thing.

    • Anne Mills says:

      I agree with Laurie. The enclosure should have been secure. The zoo is responsible for that. No one gets in or out of the snake or bird enclosures. The same should be said for enclosures for dangerous animals like the great apes, for everyone’s sake.

  4. Nicole, you are one of my dog training heroes however, speaking as a dog trainer/ animal lover and parent I feel the need to state the obvious.: Children are not dogs. That is to say, if they don’t want to be leashed, they wil simply take it off! Not to mention that at 4 years old the boy in the story is most likely too old for a leash. 4 is generally the age where kids stop using a stroller in normal circumstances. My 4 year old can climb to the top of a 2 story building via a rope. I have no problem using baby leashes. I’ve used them with both of my girls, but it’s not going to work for everyone for all sorts of reasons. Mandating their use is silly. I corral my 4 year old by having her stand on the skate board on the back of the baby’s stroller, but that’s an $850 stroller brand new ( I bought mine super old on Craigs list for $130) and any other stroller would not have worked due to my height. That’s a hefty bill to pay just to take your pre-schooler to the zoo. But I like your first idea. Zoos have rules and they need to be followed!

    • Susy Glossop says:

      As kids we had reins…they fastened at the back, there was no way we could get them off…I so wish parents would have them as the staple item when escorting their little ones through life’s experiences, this and all the other incidents of children wiggling into enclosures would not have happened. Kids would not get separated from their parents/get lost…or die.

  5. J Riddle says:

    Leashing is not the answer. Parental responsibility and common sense which seems to be lacking in these cases are what is missing.
    I raised 2 children and have visited various zoos in Ohio and outside of Ohio. I now have two grandchildren and have been to zoo with the older one. Guess what people, children have HANDS and you hold their hand and know where they are and what they are doing every minute you are out in a public place which can be potentially dangerous if you are not PAYING ATTENTION.
    I am a dog lover as well and my children were raised around dogs and learned to respect them. They have also learned to respect wildlife and understand that the animals at the zoo are just that, wild.
    So let’s go back to being responsible adults. Read the warnings posted at the zoo and other public places, yes, do not swim in the quarry cause it is DANGEROUS, and learn to use our brains and common sense. Your child wants to get more close up and personal, get a picture off the web. That’s close enough.

    • Lynda Fisher says:

      all people are not responsible and don’t teach their children, nor do they keep their children contained. children do what they do and run away to see something they want to see.

      i am tired of people expecting cities and zoos or construction sites, etc. to reenforce an area to prevent any entry. people have to take responsibility for their actions or lack of actions.

    • Lynda Fisher says:

      all people are not responsible and don’t teach their children, nor do they keep their children contained. children do what they do and run away to see something they want to see.

      i am tired of people expecting cities and zoos or construction sites, etc. to reenforce an area to prevent any entry. people have to take responsibility for their actions or lack of actions.

      i broke my wrist so there are no upper case anything until my splint comes off and i can use two hands.

  6. I was a trainer at a World Famous Zoo, a am an owner of a Professioanl Dog Training Business and I am a parent. I can understand your frustration. I also am heartbroken by these stories. Sadly, it is an accident. Parents going to the Zoo are under the the impression they are on a nice family day to the Zoo. The Zoo does all they can think of, and their insurance company can think of, to protect the public. Sometimes you can not predict what a person, including a child will do. These tragedies happen in all sorts environments and locations. The beach, National Parks, Museums, sidewalks etc. Unfortunaltly the animals pay the ultimate price.

    The best Keepers and Trainers, with the most resources train for such emergencies with good recalls and trades but it is impossible to predict every situation. The entire Zoo has emergency training protocols for similar events as well. Taking the life of any animal is only a last resort.

    • guarddogblog says:

      Thank you for your informed and thoughtful response. I’m disappointed in the reactionary answer to an obviously rare situation outlined in this blog post.

    • Keller says:

      While reading all the comments here, I kept thinking about my own daughter and how we kept her safe when she was young. My mother used a leash with my brother and me and highly recommended that I do so, as well. I took her advice and my daughter stayed safe. She wasn’t a wild child, but when we visited sites that held the possibility of danger for young ones (or ourselves, for that matter), she was either on a leash or her hand was in mine or her father’s. The leash wasn’t used with the intention of controlling her but of keeping her safe. My friends felt I was treating her like she was a dog, but I was confident enough to know that I was keeping her safe and I ignored their comments.

      We visited the Palo Duro canyon in Texas when our daughter was a busy and curious two-year-old. You better believe that she was in a harness on a leash. Without the precaution of a harness and leash, just one moment of letting my guard down and looking away from her and temporarily letting go of her hand could have resulted in disaster. I didn’t care that some people there looked at me as if I were a lunatic mother. I kept my child safe. Period.

      I spent years working in social services as a family specialist. Way, way too many parents do not keep their children safe or under control in circumstances that are only mildly dangerous, let alone in an environment like a zoo. Too many people believe that the rules do not apply to them or are just too flippant to take the rules seriously or do not have the capacity to understand the dangers inherent in an environment like a zoo when the rules are not followed.

      When dealing with the general public, one must always be mindful of the possibility of irresponsible actions that could create a crisis or disaster and take whatever precautions necessary to prevent them.

      Obviously, the zoo is an environment where disaster prevention is of the utmost importance. Therefore, I believe that the onus lies with the zoo to ensure that the barriers are impenetrable to the public and that the rules are followed. Those who do not comply with the rules ought to be escorted out of other zoo.

      Better safe than sorry and better secure than sued.

  7. Tressie says:

    Frankly I’d like to see all zoos abolished. Yes, every single one. There is no justification for keeping them open simply to imprison and exploit animals for human entertainment and profit. I would like to think the mother of that child will forever feel guilty for having caused the death of an innocent, imprisoned and endangered animal. Unfortunately, she is more likely to be grateful to the zoo keepers for killing it and will not likely ever feel responsible for what happened.

  8. Eleanor Gray says:

    Nicole, we see kids running all over each and every time we visit the zoo. yes the zoo is a great outlet/activity for parents to take kids…..but a zoo is full of……well, mostly large wild animals. Added signage and the “kid leash” although some balk at a kid on a leash, but hey I’d rather have my little one on a leash (and I used one on my now grown kids when in large public places) than my kid in the gorilla enclosure!

  9. Jonsie says:

    When our kids were small, we made many trips to the zoo and never had any incidents! Why??? It’s called responsible parenting. Our kids always stayed close, no matter how excited they were. If we picked them up so they could see better, they were safely in our arms. It’s pretty simple. We usually had 3 or more kids with us. You can’t hold them all at once, so while they waited for their turn to get picked up, they held hands with the other 2. Be a responsible parent, you owe it to your children and the animals💖

  10. Nicola Oliver says:

    No parent can watch their child 24/7 in any location, especially if thwy have other children (which we dont know if this family have) . When you take your child to the zoo you expect that the barriers and enclosures will stop your child coming into contact with dangerous animals. I’ve taken my children to the zoo and expect that for the money im paying we will get a safe enjoyable educational experience. If for one moment i thought my children would be in danger of falling into an enclosure i wouldnt go! Nobody would! Sadly i feel the responsibilty falls entirely on the zoo. Whats happened ia an absolute tragedy but the zoo made the right call. Sadly, had they of continuosly reexamined how the keep their animals and how they keep their guests SAFE , this may never have happened in the first place.

  11. porterk9 says:

    I have two children four and six. My four year old is a crazy monkey who has a wild streak and enjoys life right on the edge. I am also a biologist who was previously a zookeeper. Signs are good and asking folks to leave is good. I spent a lot of time as a keeper educating the public on being safe and respecting animals. Leashing kids will never work and shouldn’t be necessary if children have parents that have been teaching them respect for others animals and people alike. If you leash a child like my 4 year old he will likely take out a senior citizen or try to hang from the harness to test it’s strength. It will cause more problems than it will solve. Don’t even get me started and the parents who will think the harness is a safety device that they can use to dangle children over the enclosures. The best wats to avoid this are better enclosures and educate parents as they walk in verbally as opposed to signs. Speaking face to face is more effective than hoping the average American will read a sign. Limiting the number of children allowed per adult would also help. I’m sure a little boy running a million miles enjoying life for all it is can kill on the knees when he collides with you and I’m sorry my son is absolutely guilty of this as you and all of us likely were at his age. He lead something each time and he carries that with him. It’s why adult don’t run crazy we don’t want to hit others. If you leash him he will hurt me hurt himself and hurt bystanders that get tangled in his madness. Educate don’t inhibit. My boys don’t do stupid stuff around animals because we talk about respecting them what it must feel like to be them. Etc.

  12. This month a man managed to get into the lion enclosure at Santiago Zoo in Chile, and 2 lions ended up shot. Kid leashes are not the solutions. We have to rethink the whole idea of animals , especially wild one living in enclosures- however enriched, however safe– as entertainnainment. The only animals kept in captivity should be those unfit for release in the wild- such as those saved from circuses and illegal trade — and they should be in sanctuaries.

  13. Tom Heiskell says:

    Apparently for the safety of both humans and captive animals zoos need to hire lifeguard equivalents at any exhibit with animals that are dangerous or perceived as dangerous. Have a sign that displays no barrier crossing, blow the whistle when adult humans or insufficiently supervised children cross the line and send them out of the pool with a refund. Or we can accept outcomes like this one in which zoos balance liability costs, their views of whether the child actually was in danger and whether behavioral or nonlethal alternatives will work. By the way who has the expertise in situations like this to reliably predict the direction a gorilla will fall with a single lethal shot. Portraying the behavior of this gorilla as aggressive or preagressive does not fit with the behavior seen on the snips of video that were released. He might have kept the child from drowning. So sad all around, including for the person who had to follow orders to take him down. : -(

  14. Jill Rose says:

    I heard the child was 3, not 4. As a dog trainer and a parent of 1 child, I don’t think it’s fair to punish all parents for the lack of supervision or otherwise of a few parents. When my daughter was that age and in public places especially, I watched her like a hawk and there were immediate consequences for right and wrong behaviors. I wasn’t looking at my cell phone or checking social media. I’m not saying that’s what those parents were doing. But when you have young children in a large public setting, all your attention must be on them at all times.

    • wildewmn says:

      Agreed about paying attention to your children at all times. For the record, it was originally thought that the child was 3 but later reports corrected the age to 4.

      • ejhaskins says:

        Jill and Nicole — there are children and children. I have four — three were never a worry. The other was a wild child — and seemed to get himself perpetually into sticky situations. No I was not an irresponsible Mum. His Teachers (kindergarten, infants, primary and secondary schools) found him ‘difficult’, his sports coaches found him ‘difficult’, He lost a few jobs before he managed to get is act together. Lucky for his son that he did not take after his father and for my other grandchildren that they did not take after their uncle.
        Eternal vigilance meant he survived. But he got plenty of physical injuries as a child, and got expelled from several sports teams and is high school.
        It is also hard to take the abuse from other people when your child throws a tantrum in the Glassware section of the department store (BAD mother), or when people see you with your child in a harness (Cruel Mother).
        A little bit of empathy for those with less luck in life than you is warranted.

    • Sandy says:

      Parents should know where their kids are 24/7 until the age of, let’s say college. I see kids, far too young to be out of the watchful eye of a caregiver or parent. Kids “disappear” all the time. Just ask law enforcement or the FBI.

  15. Veritas says:

    Child safety harnesses do in fact work. There are comfortable, well made products available (online) and they actually give kids a surprising amount of freedom and in some cases, a feeling of heightened security. You don’t have to hold their hand or be on constant alert and the child can explore within a safe perimeter. Whether that will solve the problem is open to debate, but they should not be dismissed out of hand.

  16. elle says:

    perhaps a 1:1 ratio of adult to child (adult gets in free with the child THEY are responsible for ? ) as a twin and youngest of 7 children our mother used a harness while supervising all her children on her own (father working) and none of us ever sustained injury ! i know people that use them in all circumstances for protection from ‘stranger danger’. parents – children (and dogs you own) are your responsibility – not the parks, not zoos, not playgrounds, not other people’s. i hope this family feels the loss of this beautiful animal due to their negligence.

  17. ejhaskins says:

    it is easy enough to lose certain children But there is something seriously wrong with a zoo or any other facility which does not ensure that its animals are safe from stupid children.
    (Believe me I know about tear-aways, It is hard work to keep an eye on them. My tear-away is still alive in his mid-forties, and thankfully never endangered another animal in his escapades. Yep, and as a toddler he did have a harness — beats losing a child

  18. Sandy says:

    I too am sickened and saddened (still crying) over this senseless scenario. The best you could do was kill a 17 year old gorilla?? He was probably the patriarch!
    I see stupid parent behavior on a daily basis, and it’s getting worse. Well guess what? You can use positive dog training on a kid! I did, and it worked out beautifully. They never ran off, ran into the street, etc. You get the idea.
    Look what happened because some parent didn’t use common sense. What a waste of a beautiful animal. Shame on you!

  19. Leashes won’t work for a variety of reasons. And it is certainly not fair to put ish the majority for the fault of a few. I think an easy solution to most of these issues is an electric fence for the people between barriers and animals.

  20. Thanks for this post. Exactly my thoughts. The gorilla hasn’t done any harm to the boy for 10 minutes and seemed pretty calm (though only judged from TV of course)… but still he was shot to dead right beside the boy. Anyone thought about what that did to the boys psyche?

  21. andrew grant says:

    many years ago a child fell into the moat of the gorilla enclosure at Jersey zoo in the UK. Jambo, a large male gorilla, immediately came to him and protected the boy from the other gorillas who reacted to the incident in a more vocal and possibly threatening manner. No guns fired. The boy was rescued and Jambo went on to live a long life. This incident was recorded and is on YouTube. Perhaps the boy at the Cincannati zoo was in danger….we will never know. The parents should be taken to Uganda and dropped into a man made enclosure for the gorillas to gawk at and make fun of, perhaps they even might even throw them some fruit and peanuts.

  22. Animals over human life!!!!!! Dummy up!!!

  23. After reading all of your comment about the poor “endangered” guerilla, which is so awful, considering the facts that humans placed the guerilla in that zoo in what has to be considered an unsafe ennclosure, the zoo are whole heartedly to blame. There should be no way anyone can get in there in the first place, at all, ever! So i agree in saying the zoo’s should change things now. If the zoo is trying to conserve a species, then as you say, why so many incidents. Animals are being injured or worse still shot, for as far as i can see, NO good reason. Without me even stating my opinions on why they even exist! I couldnt agree more with your answer to this problem and if the parent has to many kids to keep a responsible eye on them, make sure there are so many adults per child also! Meanwhile whilst they debate amongst themselves, nothing is being done to rectify this tragedy and the risk to the poor defenseless animals goes on. Well said Nicola!! its great you had your say and put it across so eloquently!!

  24. Hll says:

    Why I agree with most of this article, I disagree that the parents n zoo keepers were NOT at fault…They should not have to idiot proof everything cause dumb ass parents don’t keep track of their kids. ..but I do agree to having them on harness…Dumb Humans make me sick n poor animals pay for it…They should be charged with endangering that poor child n animal…

  25. J Riddle says:

    One thing I would like to know and I have not read it in any news report is how did this kid climb a wall and no one noticed? Eyewitnesses said blah blah blah. Did not one person standing there not see this child get past the rail and climb the wall? Did everyone just stand there and watch? I need to look up this zoo and see how the enclosure is constructed but if it was that easy for a 4 year old to scale, then perhaps zoos need to rethink the security and type of enclosures they are using. Perhaps zoos in general just need to rethink what is their purpose. Are they there to educate and bring awareness to the endangered species and bring to light how to co-exist with the animals and protect their environment or are they there to merely exploit the animals and be nothing more than an amusement park? As for kids running wild, again people, learn to control your child and be safe in ANY public venue.

  26. LK says:

    You would be surprised how the public does not intervene when it comes to child’s behavior and how many parents DO NOT pay any sort of attention to their children.

    I am disabled and rely on a Service Dog. I have so many problems with unsupervised children in libraries, grocery stores are the worst, malls, pretty much any public place. It’s disturbing that a parent has no problem with their child kicking or yanking on my Service Dog ears, poking it in the eye, toddlers climbing through shopping cart lines to climb on my Service Dog.

    Yes, he’s well trained, but he’s also an animal, not a robot. I had a rude 6 year old put his finger up my dogs anus. This is what parenting has deteriorated to, and this is in a grocery store.

    Why aren’t these parents being lost, or kidnapped? Often the parents of the kids harassing me have no clue where their child is, until I start yelling at their kid and they start crying.

    THESE are the same parents that let this kind of crap happen at zoos. If you don’t even know where your kid is, they get into all sorts of things. And if it’s a habit for them, as I’, sure it was for this 4 year old (most 4 year olds aren’t climbing gates and wriggling under bars to get to something) unless they’ve had plenty of practice running off and doing things completely unsupervised.

    This gorillas death is on the parents head, plain and simple. Lack of parenting, gabbing on the cell phone is what cost that gorilla it’s life.

  27. andrew grant says:

    while i agree with most of what you say….lack of parenting being the most egregious deficiency of this mother who was incapable of keeping an eye on children in her care (and are these people for real on this blog suggesting you keep kids on leashes…yes you do, going down a ski slope teaching them to ski)….what most caught my attention in your comments was the case you mentioned of a “rude 6 year old put his finger up my dogs anus”…..this beggars belief…and a service dog too! Was this on a farm, in a vet’s office perhaps, in Germany?

  28. Ron Bevacqua says:

    Hi Nicole,

    Your comments on this tragedy is SPOT ON!

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