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A Day at the Zoo


The tragedy that occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens on May 28, 2016, highlights the dangers in such popular summer destinations. Enjoying the Memorial Day weekend, Michelle Gregg and a friend had taken several children, including her 4 year old son, to the Cincinnati Zoo. While looking at the gorillas, Gregg's son became very excited and reportedly told his mother that he wanted to "go in and see the monkeys." Gregg repeatedly told her son no, and began putting the other children in the strollers in preparation to go. According to an eyewitness, that is when Gregg first heard the splash and screams, and realized that her son was in the enclosure with the 450 pound Silverback gorilla named Harambe. What followed was recorded by the eyewitness, and the video shows Harambe at times appearing to be protective of the child--standing him up and even adjusting his clothing--and at other times violently dragging the child by his foot through the water and over the concrete in the enclosure. The Dangerous Animal Response Team arrived at the enclosure, killed Harambe,and rescued the boy, who survived the ordeal with a concussion and minor scrapes and cuts.


The video of the incident went viral, and so has the controversy surrounding the killing of Harambe, who belonged to an endangered species. Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo, Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and an expert in working with wildlife, as well as other experts in the field have defended the decision to kill Harambe by pointing out that the child was in imminent danger, and tranquilizing the huge Silverback could have taken up to 10 minutes before sedation set in, during which time Harambe could have thrashed around--and thrashed the boy around with him. Silverback gorillas are incredibly strong, and Harambe could have severely injured the little boy or killed him without even meaning to harm him, as evidenced by the boy suffering a concussion by simply being dragged through the water and hitting the concrete below. Animal rights activists and representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, acknowledge this, but have criticized the killing of Harambe, by asserting that both the boy's mother and the Cincinnati Zoo were negligent.


It did not take long for fingers to start pointing in all directions. An online petition on titled "Justice for Harambe" garnered 500,000 signatures in just a few days. The petition protests the death of the endangered gorilla and asks the Cincinnati Zoo, Child Protective Services and the Cincinnati Police Department to hold the parents of the boy responsible. The Cincinnati Police have conducted an investigation, with which the parents cooperated, and the findings have been turned over to the office of the Prosecuting Attorney for a decision about whether charges will be brought. That decision should be announced the week of June 6, 2016.

Although it is tempting to say that the boy's mother should have been supervising the boy more closely, the reality is that it can take only seconds for an agile and determined child--as this boy seems to have been--to slip away and get into trouble. Did the mother's momentary lapse of supervision constitute child endangerment? Only the decision by the Prosecutor about whether to press charges will answer that question conclusively. However, given the facts known so far, liability for criminal child endangerment seems a high burden to meet.

Fingers have also pointed at the Cincinnati Zoo. An official complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the proper oversight authority, alleging inadequate safety barriers between people and animals. The Cincinnati Zoo has maintained that it meets all USDA requirements for fencing and enclosures, and passed its most recent inspections. But do the regulations provide a safe environment for the many children that visit zoos and are tempted to do just what this little boy did? Another words, is compliance with the regulations protective enough? The incident in Cincinnati would suggest not.

Although meeting federal standards for enclosures may protect zoos from criminal liability, such compliance does not necessarily preclude civil liability. If breaching an enclosure was foreseeable, a zoo may be negligent for not providing a secondary barrier or other reinforcement against access. The desirability of natural environments and close proximity to animals at zoos should not outweigh the safety of children, who will inevitably wander off--even for just a few seconds--and get into places they should not.


If you or someone you know has been injured while visiting a zoo or park, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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