Footage of the incident shows the boy being dragged out of the water by the 200kg silverback Harambe and around the enclosure before he was shot dead.
The incident took place at Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio on Saturday.
The story went viral after it was uploaded to social media. Many people viewed the gorilla’s actions as helping the child rather than harming it.
As onlookers screamed and a woman thought to be the child’s mother called for him to stay calm, the gorilla dragged the boy through the water. Ten minutes later, the zoo’s dangerous animal response team shot and killed the gorilla.
The story has continued to unfold online as the mother of the boy has made a public post as well as those who monitor the Cincinnati Zoo Facebook page.
A Facebook page in support of Harambe established to raise awareness and instigate disciplinary measures against the zoo has collected a great deal of these responses.
Users on the page ‘Justice for Harambe‘ have angrily debated whether the fault lies with the parents or the gorilla for the events that took place.
“Clearly he was protecting the boy! Very sad,” one Facebook user said.
Another user wrote, “Why would they kill such a beautiful animal??? It’s not his fault?? Why was he being held accountable?? This makes no sense.”
People have also debated whether it was necessary to shoot Harambe, with one user posting, “I don’t see why they could not use tranquilliser rather than kill this beautiful creature”.
On Twitter, the hashtag #RIPHarambe is gaining traction, with many taking to the platform to share their distress at the death of 17-year-old Harambe. Wider debate is also beginning to surface about whether it’s necessary for animals to live in captivity simply for our own entertainment.