Gorilla killing sparks federal negligence complaint against Cincinnati Zoo

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An animal protection watchdog group claims the Cincinnati Zoo violated federal regulations by not having adequate enclosures and should be held responsible for the death of the zoo's gorilla Harambe.
People attend a vigil outside the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, two days after a boy tumbled into its moat and officials were forced to kill Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati, Ohio, US on May 30, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS
Thane Maynard, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, speaks to reporters two days after a boy tumbled into a moat and officials were forced to kill Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati, Ohio, US on May 30, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Animal rights activists filed a federal complaint accusing the Cincinnati Zoo of negligence in maintaining its gorilla habitat after an ape was killed in order to rescue a boy who had fallen into its enclosure, a spokesman for Stop Animal Exploitation Now said on Tuesday (May 31).

The complaint, which was filed with the US Department of Agriculture after the 450-pound animal named Harambe was felled by a single shot on Saturday, seeks the maximum penalty of US$10,000 (S$13,800) for the zoo, said Michael Budkie, co-founder of SAEN said.

"It's clear that this enclosure is not capable of keeping a four-year-old child out and must violate federal regulations," he said.

"This could potentially be the zoo's third citation. This one ended up not only endangering a child but also essentially with the murder of a gorilla by gunshot," Budkie said.

Zoo officials were not immediately available for comment but said on Monday the exhibit was safe and exceeded required protocols.

Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the complaint had been received but that an investigation had not yet been opened.

A review of the USDA inspection reports showed the zoo was cited after routine inspection in March for failure to close two doors near a service hallway that allowed two polar bears to enter the hallway, which housed dangerous items such as cleaners, electrical switches and wires.

The bears had to be tranquilised before they could be returned to their enclosure, the report said.

In November 2014, the zoo received citations for deteriorating wood in two enclosures for horses and one for Eastern black and white colobus monkeys. The rotting wood made it difficult to sanitise the surface and jagged pieces posed a risk of injury to the animals if eaten, the report said.

The USDA regulates zoos, circuses and marine mammal parks under the Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law that requires a minimum standard of humane treatment and care for animals in research, exhibition, transport and by dealers.

Anger over Harambe's death sparked more than 400,000 signatures on online petitions at Change.org, some demanding"Justice for Harambe" and urging police to hold the child's parents accountable.

On Monday, Thane Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, said that a 1-metre barrier around the gorilla enclosure was adequate, even though the boy was able to climb over it and fall in.

"The trouble with barriers is that whatever the barrier, some people can get past it. ... No, the zoo is not negligent," he said.

Zookeepers shot Harambe, a 17-year-old Western lowland silverback, which is an endangered species, after it grabbed the boy and dragged him around.

The boy's mother on Facebook said he suffered a concussion and scrapes but was otherwise fine.

Maynard stood by the decision to shoot the gorilla, saying he was not simply endangering the child but actually hurting him.

"Looking back, we would make the same decision," he said. "The gorilla was clearly agitated. The gorilla was clearly disoriented," said Maynard, while lamenting the loss of "an incredibly magnificent animal."

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