Detroit Zoo leader: Gorilla’s death ‘a tough situation’

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan on Tuesday called the weekend killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo “tragic on so many levels,” but said it would’ve been “very difficult to not take action” after a 3-year-old boy entered the animal’s enclosure.

A moat and fence separate patrons and the gorilla enclosure at the Detroit zoo.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Kagan, who called the second-guessing about the zoo’s actions “a little unfair” and urged critics to wait for the full review of the incident to be complete.

Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, was killed Saturday with a rifle after the boy climbed over a 3-foot-tall railing, walked through an area of bushes 4 feet deep and plunged some 15 feet into a moat where he encountered the gorilla.

After the shooting, Kagan reached out to Cincinnati’s zoo director Thane Maynard.

“I emailed him and expressed my sympathy,” Kagan said. “... It certainly appears that the child was at risk of being killed.”

Watchdog group wants Cincinnati Zoo held responsible

Maynard on Monday defended the zoo’s decision to kill the 420-pound gorilla, saying he was agitated and disoriented by the commotion during the 10 minutes the boy was in the enclosure. He said the gorilla could crush a coconut in one hand and there was no doubt that the boy’s life was in danger.

Like the Cincinnati Zoo, Kagan said the Detroit Zoo has an immobilization team and a dangerous animal team, which are required as part of its accreditation. Both teams, which have separate members, practice regularly for various emergencies, including a terrorist attack.

“There are lots and lots of protocols,” Kagan said.

Still, even with regular training and practice drills, “when you have individual situations there are variables,” Kagan said.

Gorilla Koko waits for his Halloween treats at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, Michigan on October 15, 2014.

Meanwhile, zoos that were once designed “like prison” for animals are now more open in some ways to create a more humane habitats and a more immersive experience for visitors, Kagan said. The zoo’s kangaroo exhibit, for example, has no walls and visitors can walk through it, though staff is posted throughout.

But even as designs change, “there is a requirement that people pay attention to the rules, and they’re supposed to mind their children,” Kagan said.

Kagan said it’s important for people to understand that gorillas are not aggressive by nature.

“But I’m sure probably because of all the stress (Harambe) was pretty agitated,” Kagan said. Tranquilizers “won’t take effect right away. There’s just a whole range of bad scenarios.”

Associated Press contributed.

Zoo death update

Parents face police probe

Police said Tuesday they are investigating the parents of the 3-year-old boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and had to be rescued by a team that shot the 400-pound animal to death. Authorities said the investigation will look at the parents’ actions leading up to the incident — not the operation of the zoo, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Police will then confer with prosecutors over whether charges should be filed, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said.