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Cincinnati Zoo chief: "We saved that little boy's life"

CBS News logo CBS News 5/30/2016 CBSNews

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CINCINNATI, Ohio - The director of the Cincinnati Zoo defended on Monday the decision to kill a popular gorilla after a four-year-old boy fell into the animal's enclosure. There has been growing criticism about whether the animal had to die, as well as the zoo's barrier keeping the public out and animals in.

Watch: Jack Hanna agrees "1000 percent" with zoo's decision to kill gorilla

Zoo director Thane Maynard addressed reporters Monday afternoon, and said the "dangerous and sad" decision to allow the organization's emergency response team to kill the animal known as "Handsome Harambe" was not taken lightly, and that critics need to recognize that.

"I think they know we saved that little boy's life," Maynard said. "We stand by our decision."

Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard The director also defended the animal's enclosure, which many have said must have been overly weak in terms of security if a four-year-old could penetrate it.

"We've never had to kill an animal in the middle of a dangerous situation" in the 144-year history of the zoo, Maynard said.

In describing the incident, Maynard said the boy initially fell about 15 feet into a shallow moat at the edge of the enclosure, and people outside it began making a commotion, which attracted Harambe's attention.

Zoo keepers, when they realized what was happening, called the other gorillas in the enclosure over to leave the open area, and while Harambe normally responds well to keeper's demands, he was "excited" and "distracted" by the boy's presence, and therefore was the only animal to not listen.

gorilla.jpg © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. gorilla.jpg

"Gorillas are not polar bears," Maynard said. "He wasn't trying to eat the child."

Watch: Ohio zoo defends killing gorilla after boy trapped

Despite what appeared to be a curiosity on Harambe's part, Maynard said the decision was taken to put the more than 400-pound gorilla down because "the risk was due to the power of that animal."

"This child was being dragged around," Maynard said. "His head was banging on concrete."

Maynard said officials are studying the gorilla enclosure's barrier, and the zoo director would not say whether any changes will be made.

The director said the zoo is devastated by the loss, because they're one of the key players in captive breeding and conservation of the endangered lowland gorilla.

The boy was reportedly injured in the incident but is home and "doing fine," according to his family, which has declined to speak publicly about the incident to date.

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