A special zoo response team shot and killed a 17-year-old gorilla Saturday that grabbed and dragged a four-year-old boy who fell into the exhibit's moat, the Cincinnati Zoo's director said.
Authorities said the child, who fell 10 to 12 feet, was expected to recover after being picked up and dragged by the gorilla for about 10 minutes.
CBS affiliate WKRC reported the boy, who was initially said to be three years old, was taken to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center with serious but not life-threatening injuries.
Director Thane Maynard said the zoo's dangerous animal response team that practices for such incidents decided the boy was in "a life-threatening situation" and that they needed to put down the 400-pound-plus male gorilla named Harambe.
"They made a tough choice and they made the right choice, because they saved that little boy's life," Maynard said. "It could have been very bad."
Zoo officials were still investigating, but Maynard said they believe the boy crawled through a barrier before falling into the moat. Maynard said he hadn't talked with the boy's parents yet.
According to Maynard, the gorilla didn't appear to be attacking the child, but he said it was "an extremely strong" animal in an agitated situation. He said tranquilizing the gorilla wouldn't have knocked it out immediately, leaving the boy in danger.
Maynard said it was the first time that the team had killed a zoo animal in such an emergency situation, and he called it "a very sad day" at the zoo. The lowland gorilla is an endangered species.
The incident was reported at around 4 p.m. The area around the gorilla exhibit was closed off Saturday afternoon as zoo visitors reported hearing screaming.
Harambe came to Cincinnati in 2015 from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.
Hospital officials said they couldn't release any information on the child. Authorities hadn't released the child's name.
Maynard said the zoo's Gorilla World area would be open as usual on Sunday. He said the zoo believed the exhibit remains safe.
The zoo prides itself for its work in protecting endangered species, and has been part of successful captive breeding efforts in recent years in the effort to save the endangered Sumatran rhino.