A holiday weekend quickly turned into a full-blown PR crisis for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, after a 4-year-old boy fell into the Gorilla World exhibit May 28. The zoo employees had to act quickly and made a decision to kill a rare silverback gorilla, named Harambe, who was dragging the child around the enclosure like a rag doll.
The boy who climbed over the 3-foot-high fence before plunging 15 feet into the moat with animals, received only minor injuries and was released from the hospital later that day. The Cincinnati Zoo, however, received waves of criticism from animal rights supporters and backlash on social media. Some blamed the insufficient height of the barrier surrounding the enclosure, while others criticized the zoo for its decision to kill Harambe instead of tranquilizing the animal.
Recognizing the threat of the developing PR crisis, the zoo acted swiftly and posted a press release on its Facebook page on Sunday commenting on the situation:
“We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made by our Dangerous Animal Response Team,” said Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard.
The detailed release explained each of the zoo staff’s actions as the situation unfolded, as well as its rationale behind forgoing the tranquilizing option:
“Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger. On top of that, the impact from the dart could agitate the animal and cause the situation to get much worse,” said Maynard.
The following Monday, Maynard held a press conference to further explain the incident and defend the decision to shoot and kill the animal.
By mobilizing quickly to address the PR crisis and making itself available to the press, the Cincinnati Zoo was able to successfully defend its actions and mitigate the growing backlash.
Moreover, by being completely transparent throughout its crisis response and acknowledging the tragedy of losing Harambe, the organization effectively alleviated numerous concerns that it was too quick to use deadly force on a member of an endangered animal species.