- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2016

An Ohio prosecutor has decided not to file charges against the mother of a 3-year-old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo last week, as animal experts and activists debate conservation efforts for endangered species.

Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Joseph Deters said Monday that authorities had determined that the mother was attentive and showed no signs of negligence, and the boy’s home is age appropriate.

“If you don’t believe that a 3-year-old can scamper away so quickly, then you’ve never had kids,” Mr. Deters said at a press conference.

Zoo personnel shot and killed Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, after the boy fell into the enclosure during the Memorial Day weekend. Zoo Director Thane Maynard has defended the action, saying the 420-pound gorilla’s strength and disoriented behavior placed the boy’s life in immediate danger.

Harambe was one of 360 lowland gorillas in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He had been transferred from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, in 2014 so that he could breed with females at the Cincinnati Zoo, and Mr. Maynard called his death “a loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas.”

In 2012, AZA-accredited institutions provided $160 million in support of more than 2,500 conservation projects around the world. These efforts include the Species Survival Plan Program — a long-term plan that includes conservation breeding, habitat preservation, education initiatives, field conservation and supportive research.

But members of the conservation movement are divided on the subjects of captive breeding and the use of endangered animals in educational efforts.

Michael Hutchins, former executive director of the Wildlife Society, recently told The Washington Post that zoos carefully manage gene pools and captive breeding operations because they are viewed as an “insurance policy” should wild populations go extinct.

However, animal rights activist Michael Budkie of Stop Animal Exploitation Now blames the zoo for Harambe’s death, calling it a violation of the federal Animal Welfare Act and seeking a $10,000 fine against the zoo.

Critics like Mr. Budkie argue against the captivity of any animals, even those in zoos, but the AZA cites the importance of public engagement and the use of zoos as educational tools.

AZA-accredited zoos — including the Cincinnati Zoo — contributed more than $4.5 million to gorilla field conservation projects between 2010 and 2014, said an AZA spokesman.

In many cases, people would never learn about endangered animals if they were not able to see and learn about that animal at a zoo or aquarium the spokesman said. Visitors generate funds through ticket sales and donations that are used for conservation efforts in the wild.

“People should know that when they visit an AZA-accredited facility, they are helping save species,” the spokesman said.

The World Wildlife Foundation and the International Union for Conservation of Nature consider gorillas to be critically endangered. Populations are declining due to habitat loss, poaching and the Ebola virus — which kills an estimated 95 percent of infected gorillas, the AZA says.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the gorilla population has fallen by more than 60 percent over the past 25 years, increasing the threat of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.

• Aubri Juhasz can be reached at ajuhasz@washingtontimes.com.

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