The most-talked about gorilla exhibit in the world of late re-opened Tuesday with multiple measures in place to prevent anyone getting in after a 3-year-old boy did just that May 28.
A new, higher barrier was installed around the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit, which closed after the child climbed into the enclosure and was dragged by Harambe, a 17-year-old 450-pound silverback gorilla.
To protect the child, a zoo response team fatally shot the endangered animal, which sparked outrage on social media and attracted international attention.
Megan Justice, of Anderson Twp., who visited the zoo Tuesday morning with her mother and her 4-year-old daughter, said she witnessed the May 28 incident and not only agrees with the zoo’s action but also believes it would have been acceptable to act even sooner to protect the child.
“That child had minutes before he was gone,” she said. “It (the gorilla) looks protective on the video, but you have to remember that’s two minutes into it. There were eight other minutes that gorilla had with that kid, and I saw some of those eight other minutes, me, my husband, my daughter saw it. I could barely handle looking at it myself.”
Justice said the improvements — the new barrier is 42 inches high with wood beams at the top and bottom and knotted rope netting — made her “very happy.”
“I think the zoo has always done an excellent job,” she said. “I think it was a freak accident. This mother had a lot of kids. I saw her. She seemed very attentive when I saw her. Some things just happen, and I don’t blame anybody. I don’t blame the zoo. I don’t blame the mother.”
Sarah Stevie, of Fort Thomas, Ky., said she visits the zoo weekly during summer months with her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
The fence changes, Stevie said, “are really nice.”
“It blends well with the surroundings and would be difficult for my 7-year-old or my 3-year-old to climb over,” she said.
Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said Tuesday marked “a big day.”
“Cincinnati’s ready to see gorillas again,” he said, standing in the exhibit’s upper area beside an “Honoring Harambe” display. “It’s been a very difficult time, as you can imagine, over the loss of Harambe, but this community is a zoo community. We have heard from thousands of people from our region who are in support of the zoo, in support of our programs. It’s very touching.”
Losing Harambe — or any other zoo animal — is like losing a family member, Maynard said.
“People who work at zoos care about their animals very much, and so we are leaning on each other and sticking together, but of course it’s time to move on and to see gorillas again here,” Maynard said.
The zoo not only replaced the former 36-inch barrier, but also installed three surveillance cameras, he said.
“The exhibit we had was safe,” Maynard said. “It was safe for 38 years, and over 43 million people came through this exhibit during that time. Every year it passed accreditation inspections through the AZA (American Zoo Association), it passed twice-a-year inspections from the USDA, but nonetheless we felt a new, bigger barrier helps reassure our visitors and guests and redoubles our effort to make sure our animals are safe and that our visitors are, as well.”
The 42-inch fence with “substantial wood” and protective netting is “more than adequate” and typical of what the zoo has throughout most of its exhibits, he said.
The incident and the publicity that followed helped reinforce the idea that parents and children need to stick together when they’re at the zoo and the zoo needs to check exhibits, not just the gorilla exhibit, and make sure all its barriers are “up to speed,” Maynard said.
Bob Herber, of Monroe, who viewed the gorilla exhibit Tuesday with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, said the episode is a tragedy. He said the situation was made worse by the media either vilifying the mother of the child involved in the incident or drawing attention to a zoo that hasn’t had an incident in a long time.
The biggest safety measure is parents being vigilant, Herber said.
“That’s not a slam on the mother,” he added, “I think that’s just the first preventative step.”
Maynard said Chewie and Mara, two “savvy” 20-year-old female gorillas who lived with Harambe, are doing well, sleeping normally and eating normally, as are the family of eight gorillas that were on display Tuesday morning.
Maynard said part of the zoo’s way of honoring Harambe is to continue its support and direct involvement in the Republic of Congo in west Africa.
“For 15 years, the Cincinnati Zoo has worked with the folks at the Wildlife Conservation Society, people in the government of the Republic of Congo, (Nouabalé-)Ndoki National Park, one of the wildest places in the world, and one of the great homes of lowland gorillas out in nature,” Maynard said. “We’re going to redouble our efforts there, send our curator of primates Ron Evans there again, and we will continue that involvement, and some of that is to make sure Harambe’s death wasn’t in vain.”
The Cincinnati Police Department completed its investigation into the boy’s parents earlier this week and filed its report to prosecutors.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters on Monday announced his office would not file charges against the boy’s mother.