A visitor who recorded the harrowing moments after a 3-year-old boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo said Sunday that the hulking ape appeared to be more of a gentle giant — protecting the child before the animal was shot dead.
The video shows Harambe, a male Western lowland silverback gorilla, place his paw on the child before the boy inches back. Harambe gently nudges the boy toward him and then tugs on the back of his pants.
In a separate part of the video, the 450-pound gorilla stands over the boy on all fours, while onlookers shout in the background.
"I don't know if the screaming did it or too many people hanging on the edge, if he thought we were coming in, but then he pulled the boy down away further from the big group," Kim O'Connor, who shot the video, told NBC station WLWT.
In the video, a woman can be heard screaming "Mommy loves you."
"I'm right here," a woman shouts, while others shriek in the background. "Please protect him, God, please protect him."
The station said it removed the more graphic parts of the video, in which the gorilla drags the boy through the moat in the gorilla enclosure.
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Cincinnati Fire Chief Marc Monahan said Saturday that first responders saw the gorilla "dragging and throwing the child."
The 3-year-old — authorities initially misreported his age as 4 — was in the enclosure for more than 10 minutes before he was rescued and taken to Cincinnati Children's Hospital in serious condition, officials said. He was released from the hospital on Saturday night and was safe at home, his family said Sunday.
"The Zoo security team's quick response saved the child's life," Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said. But he expressed remorse that the Western lowland silverback, a critically endangered species, had to be killed.
"The zoo's in the business of taking care of endangered animals, and we don't want to be in the situation in which they have to be killed," Maynard said at a news conference Saturday. "Harambe was a good guy."
The boy's family said they understood that killing Harambe was a "very difficult decision for them, and that they are grieving the loss of their gorilla."
"We are so thankful to the Lord that our child is safe," they said. "He is home and doing just fine. We extend our heartfelt thanks for the quick action by the Cincinnati Zoo staff."
Maynard said Harambe wasn't tranquilized because the drugs could have taken a while to become effective in an animal of Harambe's size.
Maynard said "the right choice was made," but on social media, people expressed outrage that an endangered animal was killed.
"This gorilla was killed bc [because] of parents negligence," wrote one person on Twitter.
#RIPHarambe. Sad this big guy was killed right after his birthday bc parents couldn't watch their kids..
O'Connor who filmed the incident, said she heard the 4-year-old say he wanted to go into the gorilla moat.
"The little boy himself had already been talking about wanting to ... get in the water. The mother's like, 'No, you're not, no, you're not,'" O'Connor recalled, adding that the mother was taking care of several other children.
The incident was the first time anyone had gained access to the gorilla enclosure, and the exhibit is believed to be secure, Maynard said. "Nevertheless, we will study this incident as we work toward continuous improvement for the safety of our visitors and animals," he said Sunday.
The animal rights group PETA criticized the zoo for not having a second protective barrier around the gorilla habitat and made its argument that wild animals shouldn't be housed at zoos in the first place.
"Even under the 'best' circumstances, captivity is never acceptable for gorillas or other primates, and in cases like this, it's even deadly," PETA said in a statement. "This tragedy is exactly why PETA urges families to stay away from any facility that displays animals as sideshows for humans to gawk at."
Julia Gallucci, a primatologist with PETA, also said in the statement that a gorilla acting in a nurturing way toward a human wouldn't be out of character.
"Gorillas have shown that they can be protective of smaller living beings and react the same way any human would to a child in danger," Gallucci said.
While the zoo was open Sunday, the gorilla attraction remained closed.
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.