The Dangers of Zoos — Who Is At Fault When an Injury Occurs?
The Cincinnati Zoo earned the unwelcome global limelight in May 2016 when a three-year-old boy slipped past barriers and fell into the enclosure of a 17-year old endangered Western lowland gorilla named Harambe.
As most people saw from video of the incident that went viral, the gorilla alternated between appearing to protect the child and dragging him around the enclosure, until zookeepers shot the gorilla dead and rescued the child. Treated for minor scratches and bruises, the child did not suffer significant injury.
The event set off a widespread backlash on several fronts. Responses included anger at the child’s caregiver, disgust at the killing of the gorilla, and animal rights activists’ support for removal of wild animals from zoos.
Legal debate immediately followed the incident — would parents have a right to sue the Cincinnati Zoo if their child was injured or killed by an animal in any of the zoo’s habitats? In the incident involving Harambe, most media attention focused on a call for prosecution of the child’s mother. With other children to look after, she did not see her three-year old “scamper away.” In June of 2016, local law enforcement, after investigation and a home visit by county child protective services, announced that it declined to bring charges against the boy’s mother.
In Ohio, although the child did not suffer significant injury, the parents might have pursued a claim for emotional distress caused to them and their child as a result of the behavior of the gorilla.
When exploring options for legal action, investigation of facts by qualified legal counsel is critical. In this case, witnesses heard the three-year old boy say, presumably within earshot of his mother, that he wanted to go into the gorilla enclosure. The child then climbed a three-foot fence and crawled through four feet of brush to reach the edge of the moat into which he fell.
If a claim was made against the zoo for inadequate housing of its wild animal population, a question of comparative negligence would arise. In this case, courts would assess and compare the negligence of all parties in providing opportunity for the child to fall into the gorilla enclosure.
Although the zoo did not appear to face any regulatory charges, nor did the parents sue the zoo, the gorilla exhibit was closed and later reopened with a more extensive barrier to discourage visitors from entering the enclosure.
In this incident, the gorilla remained contained and safe for exhibition within the enclosure designed as its habitat until a determined human child altered the scenario. In other cases, zoo animals have escaped their enclosures and injured zoo visitors, but that is not what happened here.
Examining all these intricacies is critical when determining whether an accident resulted from negligence.