By Melissa Chan
Updated: June 2, 2016 11:42 AM ET | Originally published: May 29, 2016

An animal caretaker who helped raise the 17-year-old gorilla that was shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo said Sunday that he was devastated after learning of the gorilla’s death.

Jerry Stones, who took care of the male western lowland gorilla since birth, said he burst into tears upon discovering the animal was killed Saturday after it grabbed and dragged around a three-year-old boy who had fallen into its enclosure. “I admit. I’m a 74-year-old man and it tore me up inside,” he told TIME. “These are like your children. You’re with them all the time. You’re around them from the time they’re born.”

“You have very, very tender feelings for them,” he added. “It’s like if you’ve ever lost a pet, but even worse. There’s so much more because they’re intelligent. They have so many human traits. They manage to get into your heart a little bit more.”

Officials said the gorilla, named Harambe, had dragged the child around his exhibit after the boy crawled through a barrier and fell about 12 feet into the pen. The child was treated for serious but non-life threatening injuries, Cincinnati Zoo President Thane Maynard said during a news conference.

“The choice was made to put down, or shoot, Harambe, so he’s gone,” Maynard said. “We’ve never had a situation like this at the Cincinnati Zoo where a dangerous animal needed to be dispatched in an emergency situation.”

The boy was with the gorilla for about 10 minutes before zoo officials deemed the situation life-threatening.

Stones, a facilities director at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas, said Harambe had never interacted with a child before Saturday. “That child being in that exhibit was totally foreign to him. He’s used to people, but not children,” Stones said. “We don’t know what goes through his mind anymore than what goes through my mind.”

Harambe spent about 16 years at the Gladys Porter Zoo before being moved to Cincinnati for breeding purposes in September 2014, the gorilla’s former caretaker said. “He was cute, little and playful,” he recalled. “He was an interesting little character—very intelligent and very nurturing to his brothers and sisters.”

While pained by the loss of Harambe, Stones said he understands the circumstances that led to the decision.

“I’m very, very sad to see this beautiful animal die, but at the same time you have to put the child first,” he said. “Life happens. You don’t have any control over it.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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