Harambe the gorilla was not trying to protect a child who slipped into the animal's enclosure, a zoo expert said, offering several reasons for the animal's "aggressive" behaviour.
A four-year-old boy was injured after he crawled through a barrier and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday. The boy was dragged around the enclosure by Harambe, a 400-pound silverback, until zookeepers shot Harambe with a rifle in order to remove the child.
Video footage also shows the 17-year-old Harambe standing over the boy, and at one point, the two touch hands.
Greg Tarry, associate director of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), said he was positive Harambe was being aggressive towards the child, not protective, as several commenters online have claimed.
"He was jerking that child around like a rag doll."
"When you watch a gorilla handle young gorillas, they actually can be very gentle," Tarry said in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada. "Even when it was standing over the child in the water, that's generally kind of a dominance thing."
"He was jerking that child around like a rag doll," he also said.
When asked in a news conference Monday whether he thought Harambe was protecting the child, Cincinnati Zoo director Thayne Maynard said no, the gorilla was clearly agitated.
Cincinnati Zoo director Thayne Maynard said Harambe the gorilla was aggressive, not protective, toward the child who slipped into the animal's enclosure. (Photo: Reuters)
Tarry, who has worked hands-on with animals, including gorillas, in the past, suggested that a number of factors contributed to Harambe's behaviour.
"It was a totally abnormal event in the life of this gorilla," he said. Harambe would have never dealt with a situation like this before, and Tarry said the fact that the person in danger was a child made it even more confusing.
In the video, the child is screaming and he tries to get away from Harambe. This behaviour is not something that the gorilla would have encountered previously, according to Tarry.
"If the child had been knocked unconscious, and hadn’t made a sound after he fell in the enclosure, things would have turned out differently," he explained.
"It was a totally abnormal event in the life of this gorilla."
"If that had been an adult, and the adult had sense enough to roll himself into a ball and shut up, it’s likely that the gorilla might have swiped at him once or twice, and maybe even bitten him once, but would probably have left him alone."
Tarry also stated that the onlookers' reactions would have agitated Harambe. They can be heard screaming in the video, and Tarry said he would imagine that people may have been throwing things to try and distract the gorilla.
Captivity not a factor: Tarry
Living in captivity, however, is most likely not a contributing factor, Tarry said. He explained that gorillas act virtually the same in the wild. When they encounter another troupe of gorillas, or a group of people, the males tend to charge around similar to the way Harambe was when he was dragging the child around.
Many are criticizing the zoo’s decision to kill the gorilla, saying that they could have tranquilized it rather than shooting it with a rifle. The Cincinnati Zoo explained on Facebook that tranquilizers don't take effect fast enough and that the child was in imminent danger.
Tarry agreed, saying that the behaviour Harambe was exhibiting at the time would have continued and possibly gotten worse. He also explained that if the tranquilizer accidentally hit the child, it would have killed him.
He said that the Cincinnati Zoo made the best decision and that they had no other option but to shoot Harambe. He said the child would have been killed otherwise.
Flowers were laid around a statue of a gorilla as a memorial for Harambe.
In a press release, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said that holding primates captive is "never acceptable" and that in cases like this it can be deadly.
This is not the first time that someone has been injured after falling into an animal enclosure. In 2014, a young man was attacked and killed by a tiger after climbing into an enclosure at the Delhi Zoo.
One witness told The Indian Express that the tiger only attacked after onlookers pelted it with stones. The zookeepers did not tranquilize the animal, stating that tranquilizing an agitated tiger is complicated, and was “not practical” in this situation.
Less than a month later, a toddler fell into the jaguar exhibit at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas and was sent to the hospital in critical condition. Zookeepers deterred the cats using fire extinguishers until the child was removed from the enclosure.