A barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo meant to keep guests and gorillas separate was outdated and ineffective when a 3-year-old boy slipped into the gorilla exhibit earlier this year, leading to the fatal shooting of Harambe the gorilla, a federal inspection has found.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report this week that said the nearly 40-year-old barrier needed immediate improvements after the May incident, which sparked widespread outrage over Harambe's death.
“The barrier had been in existence since 1978 with no updates,” USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in a separate statement. “While there had not been any issues prior to the May 28th incident, it became apparent on May 28th that the barrier was no longer effective.”
Authorities said the boy crawled through the public barrier and fell 15 feet into the gorilla’s enclosure, where the 420-pound male western lowland gorilla dragged the child around by his ankle through shallow water and on the ground and carried him up the ladder out of a moat. The 17-year-old Harambe was shot dead soon after.
Espinosa said the barrier was technically in compliance with standards until the child crossed over into the animal's exhibit. "T hen it was not in compliance," she said, adding that the Cincinnati Zoo took “swift and comprehensive corrective action” in response to the incident. The barrier used to be made of elevated landscape that was held back by multiple wooden log walls, a metal hand railing and two metal cables. There was a dense assortment of bushes and trees behind the railing, followed by the substantial drop into a moat.
The facility replaced the fence of the public barrier with one that is now about 42 inches tall and covered in a nylon mesh instead of cables. The zoo also added three surveillance cameras to the enclosure.
Espinosa said an investigation into the facility is ongoing and could lead to an official warning, a monetary penalty or license suspension or revocation.
The zoo said in a statement Thursday that its gorilla barrier “has always been found compliant during USDA inspections,” including one conducted in April. “We remain committed to visitor and animal safety and will continue to work with the USDA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to ensure that our exhibits meet or exceed standards,” Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said.