Social media lit up with arguments yesterday over whether staff at the Cincinnati Zoo was justified in shooting and killing a 400-pound-plus gorilla that was looming over a 4-year-old boy who had fallen into a shallow moat.

Critics and animal rights activists fumed with questions about why the gorilla could not have been tranquilized instead of shot dead, while others took to Twitter to mock the outrage.

The discussion sprouted after the Cincinnati Zoo’s dangerous-animal response team shot and killed the 17-year-old ape, named Harambe, as panicked zoo visitors watched helplessly and shouted, “Stay calm!” while one woman yelled, “Mommy loves you!”

The boy sat still in the water, looking up at the gorilla as the animal touched the child’s hand and back. At one point, it looked as though the gorilla helped the youngster stand up.

Two witnesses said they thought the gorilla was trying to protect the boy at first before getting spooked by the screams of onlookers. The animal then picked the child up out of the moat and dragged him to another spot inside the exhibit, zoo officials said.

The child, whose name was not released, was released from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center on Saturday night, hours after the fall.

His family said in a statement yesterday that the boy was home and doing fine.

“We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff. We know that this was a very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla,” the family said.

Zoo Director Thane Maynard said the gorilla didn’t appear to be attacking the child but 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.

“They made a tough choice and they made the right choice because they saved that little boy’s life,” Maynard said.

Zoo officials said the 4-year-old climbed through a barrier at the Gorilla World exhibit and dropped 15 feet into the moat Saturday afternoon. He was in there for about 10 minutes. Two female gorillas also were in the enclosure.

The two females complied with calls from zoo staff to leave the exhibit, but Harambe stayed, Maynard said.

Witness Kim O’Connor said she heard the boy say he wanted to get in the water with the gorillas. She said the boy’s mother was with several other young children.

“The mother’s like, ‘No, you’re not. No, you’re not,'” O’Connor told WLWT-TV.

O’Connor shared video she and her family recorded of the boy and Harambe. The two appear in a corner of the exhibit while visitors yell, “Somebody call the zoo!” and “Mommy’s right here!” The station did not air portions of the video showing the gorilla dragging the boy.

Cincinnati police spokesman Lt. Steve Saunders said there are no plans to charge the parents.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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