Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna, a Knoxville native and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, defended the actions of officials at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens after they shot to death a critically endangered gorilla out of concern for a 4-year-old boy who got into the animal's enclosure Saturday afternoon.
However, Hanna wasn't ready to defend the mother of the child who slipped away from her supervision.
Speaking to"CBS This Morning on Monday Hanna said, "I agree 1,000 %" with the Cincinnati Zoo's officials to take out the gorilla before he harmed the unnamed child who had gone under a railing, through wires and over a wall before falling 10-15 feet into a moat in the gorilla's enclosure.
The 17-year-old, 450-pound western lowland gorilla named Harambe, grabbed the boy and pulled him through the water, keeping the child close as onlookers screamed. The boy was treated at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and later released, and his family says he is doing fine.
A widely circulated video of the event has left many wondering if lethal force was necessary; some have interpreted the gorilla's actions as more protective than dangerous.
Hanna has no doubts, however: "They made the correct decision," he told CBS, adding that a shot from a tranquilizer gun might take 5 to 10 minutes to take effect, and it was clear to Hanna that Harambe was already alarmed by the situation and a tranquilizer shot would have aggravated him further.
"A human being is alive today because of the decision the Cincinnati Zoo made," he said.
Hanna also defended the safety of zoos in general: "We'd be at the very top of safety (compared to other types of attractions)," however, "We can only do so much (to assure safety) … What do we do? … We can't protect everything all the time."
Then as a warning to parents, Hanna said, "You always have to watch children."
About the mother of the boy, he said, "I guess maybe she was doing something else (instead of keeping an eye on her son). I don't know. I wasn't there."
In an earlier statement, Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard attempted to justify the zoo's actions. "It could have been very bad," he said.
Many of those following the story online think the killing of Harambe was already "very bad," and a petition, called Justice For Harambe, had already logged more than 210,000 supporters as of dinner time Monday.
Hanna, 69, is one of the world's most celebrated zookeepers. After growing up in Knoxville, he served as the general curator of the Municipal Zoo in Knoxville in the early 1970s, he was part-owner of Pet Kingdom on Kingston Pike, and he kept a menagerie of wild animals at his Cedar Bluff Road home that he called "Hanna's Ark."
In July of 1972, a lioness at his home, Daisy, mauled a three-year-old boy who put his hand through a fence. The lioness severed the boy's arm just above the elbow.
Hanna and his family moved to Florida in the mid-1970s, and he took a job with the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford. He eventually took a position at the Columbus Zoo in 1978.
Nicknamed "Jungle Jack," the charismatic Hanna has made many media appearances over the decades — notably on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson and David Letterman — and hosted several of his own syndicated shows, including "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and "Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown."