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.
Watch the head of Cincinnati Zoo respond to the saga. Post continues after video.
Despite the backlash, Cincinnati Zoo has defended their actions, posting on their own Facebook page that although they are “heartbroken” by the death of one of their animals, they believe the safety of the young boy was of paramount interest in this instance.
“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,” Zoo Director Thane Maynard wrote.
Maynard also addressed public criticism that the Zoo’s initial reaction was to shoot the animal, acknowledging that any other option simply was not viable.
“It is important to note that with the child still in the exhibit, tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option. Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger.
The team also acknowledged that they will take measures to investigate how the incident came about, writing that the barrier separating the animals from zoo-visitors has been effective for over 30 years.
“The safety of our visitors and our animals is our #1 priority,” said Maynard. “The barrier that we have in place has been effective for 38 years. Nevertheless, we will study this incident as we work toward continuous improvement for the safety of our visitors and animals.”
The young boy was rushed to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital but escaped without serious injury and is expected to make a full recovery.