CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Visitors flocked on Tuesday to the Cincinnati Zoo the day after prosecutors declined to charge the mother of a 3-year-old boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure, causing zookeepers to kill the endangered animal to protect the child.
Hundreds of people got their first look at the remodeled enclosure, which the zoo changed to prevent a repeat of the May 28 incident that led to the shooting of the 17-year-old endangered western lowland silverback gorilla Harambe to prevent harm to the child.
Emily Butler, 40, from Florence, Kentucky, who was visiting with her 8- and 11-year-old sons and other family, called Harambe’s death “sad all the way around,” but said they were excited to be at the habitat’s reopening.
“I was concerned they might close the exhibit altogether,” she said. “This is the one place in Cincinnati we’ve always come to spend time with our kids.”
The zoo reopened the gorilla enclosure on Tuesday with a new barrier that is six inches (15.24 cm) higher at 3-1/2 feet (1 meter). It switched materials to a solid wood beam on top and knotted rope netting on the bottom from a stainless steel railing with horizontal cables. The zoo also added three surveillance cameras.
Harambe was shot by zoo staff in the minutes after the boy fell. The animal’s death touched off a storm of criticism aimed at both the zoo and the boy’s mother, 32-year-old preschool administrator Michelle Gregg, who local prosecutors on Monday declined to criminally charge, saying she did not place her son in danger.
Some critics had called for Gregg to be charged with reckless endangerment. The boy suffered a concussion and some scrapes but escaped serious injury.
One animal rights group said Tuesday the remodeled habitat essentially proved the faulty nature of the previous enclosure.
“It is entirely possible that if this barrier had been in place by Saturday, May 28, Harambe might be alive today,” Michael Budkie, co-founder of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN), said in a statement.
On Monday, Budkie’s group, which has been critical of the zoo since the gorilla shooting, filed a second complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, charging the zoo is violating federal law by mistreating other animals.
USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency, already investigating the zoo after the previous complaint, had received the new complaint and would look into it.
SAEN last month filed a complaint accusing the zoo of negligence in maintaining the gorilla habitat and seeking the maximum penalty of $10,000.
Reporting by Ginny McCabe; Writing by Ben Klayman; Editing by Phil Berlowitz