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USDA Report Says Cincinnati Zoo Gorilla Exhibit Was Compliant Until May Incident

Cincinnati Zoo

Federal investigators said in report released last month a barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo's "Gorilla World" exhibit was in compliance with standards before a three-year-old boy slipped into the enclosure. That breach of the barrier in May made it non-compliant.

Zoo officials were forced to shoot and kill a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla named Harambe because they said the animal posed a "life-threatening danger" to the little boy. The gorilla grabbed the child and was dragging him around the enclosure.

After that incident, the zoo reopened the exhibit with new safety precautions in place.  

The United States Department of Agriculture inspected the barrier on June 6 and a report was issued October 12.

"This gorilla enclosure with its public barriers was constructed in 1978," wrote USDA's Cody Yager in the October report. "No previous incidents involving the public crossing the public barrier had been recorded until now. Fixed public exhibits housing nonhuman primates must have a barrier between the primary enclosure and the public in order to restrict physical contact between the public and the nonhuman primates."

Yager noted the new barrier is now 41 to 42 inches tall and is covered in a nylon mesh instead of two cables. The previous barrier was 32 inches tall.

Yager also wrote that all standard operating procedures relating to the Dangerous Animal Response Team's actions after the breach were properly followed.

A USDA spokeswoman said the investigation is continuing. Possible penalties could range from a warning letter to a fine and a license revocation or suspension.

Cincinnati Zoo officials said in a written statement that the barrier system for Gorilla World was always found to be compliant during USDA inspections. That includes an inspection in April of this year.

"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," said Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard in a written statement.

In June, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced the mother of the toddler who climbed through a barrier would not face charges.

"This happened so quickly, according to the witnesses, that there's nothing that the mother could have done," Deters said during a press conference. "If anyone doesn't believe a 3-year-old can't scamper off very quickly, they've never had kids because they can and they do."

Deters says the investigation showed no proof of any child endangerment and did not meet the statute requirements for such.

"It's not even a close call," Deters said at the time.

Editor's Note: Zoo Director Thane Maynard has worked with Cincinnati Public Radio for more than 20 years on the program "The 90-Second Naturalist" and conducting interviews for Cincinnati Edition.

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.